Monarch butterflies are endangered due to habitat loss across their range. Not just in their forested overwintering grounds in Mexico, but also where they migrate and reproduce here in North America including the Jacksonville area. One of the most important things we can do to combat monarch habitat loss in North America is to increase the presence of a type of plant commonly known as milkweed.
Milkweed is the only plant on which monarchs lay their eggs and the only plant their caterpillars can eat. There are 21 species of milkweed native to Florida and it is important to make sure the plants you get are native. One species commonly known as tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is widely available, but presents many conservation concerns for monarchs including a deadly parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, called OE.
In March, we sowed more than 20,000 seeds of the native swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, and in May planted 12,000 individual plants around the border of a retention pond in the parking lot. This milkweed is currently thriving and has bloomed beautiful pink flowers. We have already seen many pollinators including wasps, solitary bees, and of course, butterflies like the monarch. In the future, the seed from this milkweed will be collected and grown to increase the number of plants available to monarchs in the Jacksonville area.
Growing native milkweed can be a challenge. Make sure you select the right species for the right spot in your yard when planting a butterfly garden. Another important tip for growing native milkweed is to put your seeds in the refrigerator for a minimum of 30 days before you sow them in the spring, and plant them as seedlings being careful with the roots. Ideally, you should plant them before their roots start to circle in the container. If at first you don’t succeed, try a different spot or a different species until you find what works for your situation. By planting and maintaining native milkweed you can play an important role in the conservation of one of the world’s most iconic species!