Plant a seed... Save a butterfly

By starlight1153 (starlight1153) on April 9, 2010

Butterflies with their flashing colors and patterns, are some of the most beautiful creatures in the world. For thousands of years these small delicate creatures have delighted humans with their fluttering around from place to place and flower to flower. Butterflies bring such joy to all that behold them from the youngest child to the eldest adult. They are also one of the few rare species of creatures that are harmless to man, his garden, and farmers to their crops.


The majority of butterflies have a very short life span in which to complete their life cycle. Generally, it is only a month or two. In that short period of time, they must evolve from an egg to an adult and be able to reproduce if the species is to survive. How successful a butterfly may be at completing its life cycle is in direct control with the environment surrounding it. The adults need specific nectar plants and the larva require host plants upon which to feed if they are to flourish.

If butterflies are to survive in nature the next thousand years, it is up to us humans to help be good stewards of the land and provide habitats for them.

One such butterfly that is in desperate need of human intervention is that of  Danaus plexippus, commonly know as the Monarch Butterfly.   The extreme winter weather conditions and storms of 2009 destroyed the overwintering  sites  of the Monarch.  Thousands of Monarch butterflies were destroyed or died due to lack of  food source.  2010-04-09/starlight1153/b6ad33

There are several ways in which you can help in the survival of this butterfly.  The main way is by planting host plants and nectar plants.   There is a difference between host plants and nectar plants.    Host plants are those plants, which the adult butterflies will lay their eggs  on and the caterpillars will use to feed upon. Monarchs will breed only where Milkweeds are found .     Nectar plants are those plants, which the adults feed upon.   These are plants that produce a sugary substance called nectar.    Both type of plants are needed for the Monarchto thrive.                                                                                               

Monarchs enjoy a large range of nectar plants to feed from.   The use of Native plants and Species plants generally contain more nectar for them to feed on than some of the newest hybrid plants available on the market today.   Nectar plants will provide the butterflies with the nutrients needed to mate and lay eggs for the next generation.   Monarchs especially need nectar plants for the long journey in migrating to areas like California, and Mexico to overwinter.  
Once the Monarch leaves its overwintering site, it most generally will head to Texas where it will feed, breed and then die.   It is at this first migrating stop-over that the new generation of caterpillars will develop into adults and start migrating North.  The Monarch you observe in your garden this year, is not the one  observed last year.  It may actually be a third or fourth generation butterfly. The reason being, this processof feeding, breeding, laying eggs and then die,  will be completed by three or more generations during the course of a year, before one migratory cycle is completed (1).                                                                 

While Monarch butterflies enjoy a variety of nectar plants to feed upon, they are very particular about the host plant they use.   In fact, that are so picky, they prefer to only use Milkweed to lay their eggs upon.     2010-04-09/starlight1153/94ff2a

Asclepias, is the scientific name of the Milkweed plant they use.  There are many cultivars of  AsclepiasSome cultivars do better for different areas.   The one cultivar that you want to watch planting though is that of  Asclepias verticillta L., the Whorled Milkweed if you live in a country-type area where cattle and livestock are raised.  This particular type of Milkweed is an acute toxin to the animals and should not be planted.   This particular Milkweed will retain it’s toxins even when dry and an animal consuming 2 to 3% of this Milkweed in it’s diet can cause death (2).                


One of the reasons Monarchs prefer the Milkweed plant is because some Asclepias plants contains cardiac glycosides (heart poisons).  It is this poison which makes some birds vomit if they try to eat a Monarch butterfly, thus offering the Monarch  some protection from predators.    Not all Monarchs' are poisonous.  For a Monarch to be poisonous, its larva must digest some of the plant.     

Even with the larva ingesting the plant poison, birds such as the Black-Headed Grosbeaks have immunity and will eat the whole butterfly, while orioles and jaybirds have learned to discard the wings and eat only the thoracic muscles and abdominal contents to avoid the poison (3).   

 The following is a list of just a few of the many  Asclepias that so well in most areas.

Asclepias californica                 Asclepias speciosa

Asclepias cryptoceras               Asclepias subulata

Asclepias curassavica               Asclepias tuberosa

Asclepias eriocarpa                  Asclepias variegata

Asclepias incarnata                  Asclepias verticulata

Asclepias purpurascens 


It would be sad if this beautiful butterfly became extinct.  By planting even one Milkweed plant, you can help to save this species.    There are many places available on the web that sell Milkweed plants.   In an effort to help the Monarch butterfly thrive for future genrations, I am offering free Asclepias seeds, while supply lasts, to anybody who will take the time to grow them.  Too request free seeds, c-mail me



Many thanks to Imapigeon/Janet and Marilyn for use of their photographs.




2.  Minimizing Live Stock Plant Poisoning on Western Nebraska Rangelands.  Scott. E. Cotton. NebGuide. July 2009

3.  Butterflies of North America, A Natural History and Field, Guide. J. Scott.  1986. Stanford California. University Press. pp 229



Related articles:
butterflies, butterfly, butterfly eggs, butterfly food source, butterfly host plants, butterfly larval plants, caterpillars, Danaus plexippus, dying butterflies, host plants, larval plants, Monarch, Monarchs, native p, overwinter sites of butterflies

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Asclepias imapigeon Apr 12, 2010 7:11 AM 5

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