by Sandy Swegel
Native plant advocate Doug Tallamy tells a wonderful story about how the Atala butterfly was saved from the brink of extinction.
“…the Atala butterfly was thought to be extinct in the 1970s. Then landscapers started placing the insect’s food source, a native plant called the coontie, around houses – not to help the butterfly – but because the plant was attractive in home landscapes. The result – a butterfly thought to be extinct found the suburban plants and today appears to be on the rebound.”
The greatest challenge for the monarch butterfly has been the loss of habitat across all of its migratory path. The monarch only feeds and lays eggs on one kind of plant: milkweed. Milkweed is considered a weed by Big Ag, and large farming operations have done their best to kill all the weeds including milkweed. Highway departments also have helped eliminate habitat as they found it was cheaper to pour weedkiller on roadsides rather than mow.
It’s difficult for us as individuals to change Big Ag, or highway departments or to stop deforestation in the Mexican winter habitat monarch. But the story of the Atala butterfly suggests that the monarch can be brought back from its hurdle toward extinction. And we, in individual suburban and city yards, can do something. We can plant native milkweed, a beautiful flowering plant, in our own gardens. Our hope will be that the monarch will figure out that the milkweeds are now in a new place…our individual yards…rather than along highways and farms.
For the last couple of years, I’ve lived in the city where my yard has space for maybe two milkweed plants if I smoosh them together. It seems like a pretty tiny impact I can make. It’s hard to buy milkweed plants in garden centers, so I have to grow from seed. What I’m doing this year is germinating the entire packet of seeds in little pots. After I plant my two plants, I’ll give the other baby plants to as many of my neighbors as I can and ask them to grow the plants. With any luck, our entire block (or two) will have milkweeds growing that will be beacons to overflying monarchs. It might be hard for the monarchs to see one or two plants in my yard….but I think they’ll notice a whole neighborhood worth of milkweed.
Habitat restoration on a grand scale is a great idea. But I feel powerless as an individual to accomplish that. But in the meantime, maybe we can offer new habitat in our collective yards. I can grow out a packet of seeds and change my neighborhood.
Another quote from Tallamy:
If half of the American lawns were replaced with native plants, we would create the equivalent of a 20 million acre national park – nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park.
If you have more space in your yard, Tallamy tells about a great experiment in Delaware where researches planted Common Milkweed in a naturalistic planting in a 15′ x 15′ plot. That plot produced 150 monarchs in one season.
Let’s create this new hidden monarch habitat in our yards. Whether you have two square feet like me or space for a 15′ x 15′ plot, you can help save monarchs from extinction. One yard, one packet of seeds, one plant at a time, we can provide food and a place to raise baby monarchs.