Monarch butterflies are a welcome garden visitor, and they bring joy to any butterfly gardener. People who have experienced raising butterflies, have watched them go through their metamorphosis.
For those who haven’t seen this, monarchs — like other butterflies — go through a complete metamorphosis. They change shape from an egg, to a larva, then a pupa – also called a chrysalis, and then emerge as an adult butterfly.
To successfully raise butterflies, home gardeners must have nectar and host plants.
Nectar plants are flowering plants that provide nectar for the adult butterflies. Examples include pentas, rosinweed, jatropha and plumbago, to name a few.
Planting lots of different flowering plants, with many colors and staggered bloom times, helps attract different butterfly species.
Host plants are specific for each type of butterfly you want to attract.
The host plant is where the adult female butterfly lays eggs. The caterpillars hatch from the egg and eat the leaves, sometimes the stem and flowers, too, of the host plants. You should expect some leaf damage because this is normal as the butterfly larvae eat the leaves of their host plant.
Host plants include milkweed, pipevine, passion flower, plumbago and parsley.
Having a combination of host and nectar plants in your garden will encourage butterflies to stay there throughout the year.
Milkweed is one of the most common host plants home gardeners use to attract monarch butterflies. Milkweeds may be native or non-native. There is increased effort by butterfly organizations and the University of Florida/IFAS to encourage gardeners to plant more native milkweed.
Native milkweeds, which can be found at your local native plant nurseries, include white swamp milkweed (Asclepias perennis), pinewoods milkweed (Asclepias humistrata) and pink swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).
Some milkweeds grow best in certain types of landscapes. Talk with the nursery to select the milkweeds that would grow best in your location.
A growing concern centers on tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica). Tropical milkweed continues to grow and flower throughout the winter, whereas our native milkweeds generally die back to the ground. Tropical milkweed is not native to Florida or the United States, and it blooms and flowers all year – attracting monarchs to lay eggs when they ordinarily would not.
But, home gardeners love tropical milkweed, and it is an important plant for nurseries and consumer horticulture. Tropical milkweed is easy to grow, especially for children, and has bright, attractive flowers.
Recognizing this appreciation for tropical milkweed, the current recommendation is to cut tropical milkweed plants back through winter. As a rule of thumb, around Thanksgiving is a good time to cut back your tropical milkweed. Cut it back to the ground, or to about 6 inches from the ground, and repeat as needed.
Cutting back the tropical milkweed plants mimics the natural tendency of our native milkweeds to die back in the winter. This practice prevents monarchs from laying more eggs through the winter.
Another concern is the threat of a parasite that affects monarchs called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE for short. OE is a protozoan that spreads by spores. When OE infects monarch caterpillars, it may cause them to turn a dark color, lose their shape, live shorter lives, and emerge from a chrysalis malformed or unhealthy.
For those who have raised monarch caterpillars indoors, you may have seen this happen. When OE infects a group of caterpillars, it’s very disheartening to a butterfly gardener.
Ways to prevent OE when raising monarchs indoors are to step up the cleanliness and avoid overcrowding too many caterpillars in an enclosure. Cutting back tropical milkweed in the winter is another way to reduce the spread of OE spores to monarch eggs and caterpillars.
Fortunately, there’s space for tropical milkweed and native milkweeds in home and school gardens.
Continue to experiment with native milkweeds and enjoy the monarch butterflies that visit your garden. If you have kids, grandkids or students, talk with them about this process.
Don’t forget to cut back your tropical milkweed through the winter to reduce the threat of OE and to promote monarch health.
Also, consider joining a citizen science initiative or participating in the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Wings Over Florida program, where you may earn fun certificates for identifying butterfly species at https://floridabirdingtrail.com/wings-over-florida-butterflies/.
Here are some more helpful links:
Published January 06, 2021