Monarch butterflies fly north each spring with one purpose – to lay eggs and produce the next generation.
We have seen a disturbing decline of these regal visitors in recent years. In fact, Monarch butterflies have been markedly absent in the region surrounding Timmins and Smooth Rock Falls in Northeastern Ontario.
The decline has inspired individuals like Mark Joron of the Timmins Naturalists to plant region-specific milkweed plants with the goal of bringing Monarchs back to this part of Ontario. After I heard Mark speak about growing native milkweed, we joined forces and made a plan to connect Timmins and Smooth Rock Falls (where I live) with a milkweed corridor.
In the summer of 2015, the first native milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) was planted on private properties along Hwy 655, which connects the two communities. (See map)
Why is milkweed so important?
After an amazing migration from Mexico, female Monarchs must hurry and lay their precious eggs on only one type of plant – milkweed. This plant provides glycoside – the chemical contained in the milky white sap – which makes Monarch caterpillars taste bad to predators, thereby increasing their chance of survival. Without milkweed, the caterpillars won’t survive.
Female butterflies select milkweed species with the highest levels of glycoside, tasting the plants with their feet; they can assess the suitability of a plant for egg-laying, just by landing on a leaf.
by Pam Dallaire
Smooth Rock Falls, ON
Monarch butterflies use their senses of sight, taste and smell to locate stands of milkweed plants. They actually taste the air as they fly, recognizing chemicals in the wind and following their trail to suitable plants. That is why the size of a milkweed stand is important; to invite Monarchs to fly north, there must be a strong milkweed scent in the air.
According to MonarchWatch.org, plantings for the purpose of attracting Monarchs should have at least 100 plants, in clumps of 4 to 5 plants. Planted areas should be protected from wind and human disturbance (such as mowing). To prevent interference, the area should not be marked for the public but should be mapped or coordinates taken with a GPS.
A recent study in the US suggests that Monarchs use waterway corridors to migrate. With this new information, here in the northeast we will look at planting swamp milkweed along the edges of the Mattagami River system. There may also be a corridor of common milkweed along the train track that connects the communities. We will plan to increase the number of plants already growing in this area.
- Native in northern Ontario.
- Prefers damp locations
- HIghest in glycosides
- Native in northern Ontario
- Grows in drier, disturbed areas such as roadsides
- Not native in N Ontario
- Its orange-red flowers provide nectar for many pollinators, including adult Monarchs
How do you grow milkweed from seed?
After flowering, milkweed plants produce alien-looking seed pods that will produce hundreds of tiny brown seeds. Just before the seed pod matures in the autumn, cut the pod off the stem and bring it inside to completely dry out. When pods are dry, remove the silky strands from the seed and store in a cool, dry place for winter.
Transfer seedlings to small, deep pots filled with potting soil. Place under grow lights for 12 hours a day until ready to plant. Snip the growing tip after one month and then prune the tips again at 30 cm (12”). This will force branching and make more foliage for feeding Monarch larvae. Water the soil as it starts to dry and repot frequently, increasing one size at a time. Milkweed roots are long and need deep pots. Plant outside in full sun, allowing room for the plants to spread over time. Milkweed plants should flower in the second year.
It is fairly easy to identify milkweed once it's growing, but it may be more difficult to identify when young. Make sure you mark the spot where you plant in the first year; this makes it less likely the plants will be confused with weeds as they emerge in the spring.
The goal of the milkweed corridor between Timmins and Smooth Rock Falls is to encourage Monarchs to fly farther north in our province. The corridor is also an important way to educate the general public about the decline of all pollinators.
This season, the Northeastern Ontario milkweed corridor project will move into its second year. To find out more, visit the Cochrane District Master Gardeners online.
You can help – even on a small scale – by planting milkweed in your own garden or in a community garden. (Although in a community garden, Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly weed) would be more suitable than Asclepias syriaca (Common milkweed) which is very aggressive once established.) The presence of more plants in your community does contribute to Monarch habitat.
Another way to help...? This season, make a point of learning more about native wildflowers. While milkweed may aid the future of Monarchs, there are many other pollinators that will benefit from an increase of native flowers in our natural spaces and gardens.