Welcoming Monarch Butterflies to Your Garden

Note From Hammer & a Headband: I’m so excited about this guest post by Ida Galash of the Portland Monarchs! Ida has been sharing milkweed seeds and creating monarch butterfly gardens all over Portland, from NE to Washington Park.

Monarch populations are in serious decline, partly because of a loss of habitat. They can only lay their eggs on milkweed plants. So in an effort to help the monarchs, Ida is spreading the news about milkweed and other urgent needs of monarch butterflies.

Stone in the NE Portland monarch habitat created by Ida Galash

Stone in the NE Portland monarch habitat created by Ida Galash


Monarch Gardening Guide by Ida Galash

Providing what monarchs and other butterflies need for food, shelter, and host plants for the caterpillars, invites them to your garden and helps them survive and thrive. While you are planning or adding to your butterfly habitat, there are some things to keep in mind. These suggestions are geared toward attracting monarchs, but other butterflies will likely agree.

Choose Organically Grown Plants

The last thing you want to do is plant a beautiful garden of poison-laced plants. Those perfect looking plants at many big stores have likely been treated with pesticides/insecticides. Butterflies are insects! If the tag does not say “organic” it quite possibly is not.

Organic, native plants springing up in the monarch habitat created by Ida Galash of the Portland Monarchs

Organic, native plants springing up in the Portland Monarchs’ NE garden

Don’t assume your favorite garden retailer sells only organically grown plants. They probably buy from many growers. You have a right to know how the plants you are considering were grown. Ask. If the store can’t tell you, contact the grower listed on the tag.

If growers know pesticide-free plants are important to the ultimate customers, they will pay attention.

Choose where you spend your money with the butterflies’ best interest in mind.

Of particular concern are Neonicotinoids, or “Neonics” for short. They persist in the plant and, as they are water soluble, can leach into the ground and be drawn up by nearby plants.

Milkweed

Milkweed is needed for the caterpillars. Without milkweed there will be NO MONARCHS. Female monarchs will lay their eggs only on milkweed. Keep in mind that milkweed contains toxins, the caterpillars’ natural defense. It makes them distasteful or toxic to predators. Always wash hands thoroughly after handling milkweed and avoid contact with the eyes.

Monarch caterpillar under a milkweed leaf - photo by Sara Codair

Monarch caterpillar under a milkweed leaf (Photo Credit: Sara Codair)

Monarch butterfly in early chrysalis stage - photo by Joshua J. Cotten
Monarch butterfly in late chrysalis stage - photo by Joshua J. Cotten
Monarch butterfly emerging from chrysalis - photo by Joshua J. Cotten

Monarch from early chrysalis stage to late chrysalis stage to emergence (Photo Credit: Joshua J. Cotten)

Choose milkweed varieties native to your general area. There are nearly a hundred varieties of milkweed in the US, but your native ones will be best suited for your area.

In NW Oregon, Showy Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, and Narrow-leaf Milkweed, Asclepias fasicularis, are our native milkweeds. Both will spread by lateral rhizomes and can spread by seed if pods are left to mature on the plants. If you do not have room to let it be “free range,” consider planting it in large containers. It will be happiest in the ground, but containers provide an option and can be moved around as needed.

Growing showy milkweed seedlings for a monarch butterfly garden

Note From H & H: Here are some of the monarch butterflies’ favorite milkweed plants for each region in the US.

Heart-leaf Milkweed, Asclepias cordifolia, is found in southern Oregon, and with a warming climate, may be one to consider. I make an exception and include “nearly native” Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, in my garden. It is native to most of the US and can be found on the Oregon/Idaho border. A clump-forming milkweed, it is well suited to small, urban gardens. It is also the milkweed that Fiona, the female monarch that visited my NE Portland garden in July of 2021, chose to lay her eggs on.

I try to keep the Free Milkweed Seed Box stocked Fall through Spring. It’s located in the Monarch Habitat in the parking strip of the 3400 block of NE 24th Avenue in Portland, between Garden Fever and the Madeleine School, and parallel to the soccer field.

Narrow-leaf milkweed growing in the Portland Monarchs butterfly garden
Portland Monarchs free milkweed seed box created by Ida Galash

Free milkweed seed box and butterfly garden created by the Portland Monarchs

Milkweeds are herbaceous perennials. They die back completely in the fall. Make sure you mark their locations well. Remember what they say about perennials: “The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap.”

If you are starting with seeds, consider adding a pot or two of mature milkweed to give hungry caterpillars a dependable supply of leaves. Monarchs do not need the milkweed to be in bloom to use it for egg laying. Females will seek out tender, new plants. The flowers, however, are a nectar bonanza.

Milkweed flower in bloom - photo by Mary Hammel on Unsplash

Milkweed in bloom (Photo Credit: Mary Hammel)

Milkweed can also be cut back to encourage new growth and fuller plants. Be sure to carefully check for eggs and caterpillars first!

Nectar

Nectar sources are needed for the adult butterflies’ food. Native plants are generally superior nectar sources as plants bred for showiness or form often have been done so at the expense of nectar production.

Monarchs will look for flowers with a central disk composed of tiny flowers, surrounded by a ring of petals. Think of the form of a sunflower, daisy, zinnia, etc. Clusters of small flowers are also attractive; think of the form of ceanothus, goldenrod, pearly everlasting, lantana, etc.

Monarch on aster flowers - photo by James Wheeler

Monarch on aster flowers (Photo Credit: James Wheeler)

Make it easy for the butterflies to access nectar. Open, single forms are preferable to pompoms.

Plan for blooms during the monarchs’ migration time. As they head north, you will want blooms beginning in June. Be sure to include late bloomers for the southern migration through September. Of course, other pollinators will appreciate flowers outside of these months, too.

Note From H & H: Find out when monarchs will pass through your region with this migration map by The Xerces Society, and check out recent monarch sightings of the western variety on the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper.

The Garden

Monarchs are cold blooded and cannot fly in temperatures below 55 degrees or even crawl below 50 degrees.

You will want to consider:

  • A sunny location for your habitat
  • An open approach rather than congested space
  • Group milkweeds rather than dotting them around the garden. Several plants are easier to detect than one.
  • Avoid planting things of similar height around the milkweeds
  • Plant milkweed at the front of the bed even though they can be 3-4 feet; this makes them easier to locate and more accessible
  • A wind break for protection
  • Shelter such as nearby trees or shrubs
  • Add a flat “basking stone” to soak warmth from the sun and help butterflies warm themselves
  • Add a “puddling station,” a shallow dish or patch of ground containing soil and sand, that is kept moist, providing a safe place to get water and minerals
  • A sign to let neighbors know what you are doing and why
Butterfly puddling station in the monarch garden created by Ida Galash of the Portland Monarchs

Butterfly puddling station and stones in the NE Portland monarch habitat

Plant It and They Will Come

While Portland is not on the monarch migration super highway, they definitely do come here. Provide them with what they need and give them a good reason to start families here.

So much of their native habitat has been destroyed by human activity that they will be searching for what they need to survive and perpetuate the species.

They can detect milkweed from several kilometers away — even further for large plantings. I, and many who know far more than I, believe Portland will be increasingly important to our Western Monarchs.

Monarch butterfly feeding on a coneflower - photo by Barth Bailey on Unsplash

Monarch butterfly feeding on a coneflower (Photo Credit: Barth Bailey)

Please note that bringing monarchs into Oregon in any stage of life — egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, or adult — is illegal. Provide for them and let them find you. Encourage neighbors, friends, businesses, farmers, vineyards, schools, churches, organizations, golf courses, etc. to plant monarch habitat as well. The more habitat, the better for everyone.

Report sightings of monarchs, with a photo if possible, to iNaturalist, Journey North, Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper, and of course, let us know at Portland Monarchs. Tagging and the reporting of sightings is vital to increasing our knowledge about monarchs and their actions.

Bosky Dell Natives’ website has a superb Butterfly Plant List that has been reviewed by a top lepidopterist. It has the additional feature of including host plant information for other butterflies you might see and attract around Portland.

Want to help Portland Monarchs help the monarchs? Venmo @portland-monarchs


About Ida Galash

Ida near the Portland Monarchs' newest monarch habitat, "Wings Over Washington Park"

Ida near the Portland Monarchs’ newest monarch habitat, “Wings Over Washington Park”

Ida Galash created the Portland Monarchs, “a community dedicated to sharing experiences, learning about, and helping Monarch Butterflies (and their pollinator friends).” In addition to the butterfly garden and free milkweed seed box in NE Portland, the group is working on new monarch habitats at Washington Park and the Pittock Mansion.

You can follow along on Facebook and learn more about monarchs on Ida’s website, Save the Western Monarchs.

Read More:


Welcoming monarchs to your garden - guide by Ida Galash of the Portland Monarchs
Monarch butterfly gardening guide by Ida Galash of the Portland Monarchs

Monarch resting on an orange flower (Photo Credit: Suzanne D. Williams)

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2 thoughts on “Welcoming Monarch Butterflies to Your Garden”

  1. Awesome post! Love Monarchs! We have seen them here (We do have alot of lantanas and I read they like them so maybe that is why.) Have you watched the ” Flight of the Butterflies”? It’s a documentary about the 2,000 mile journey they make across North America. It’s great! It’s a NOVA show and was on PBS but I think it is also on Netflix. Great idea about planting the Milkweed plants for your region to help them.

    Reply
    • I will have to check out that documentary! That’s great you have a bunch of lantanas to feed the butterflies on their migration. We are going to plant our milkweed seedlings soon. Can’t wait to get our butterfly garden up and running!

      Reply

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