7 Essential Elements for Attracting Monarch Butterflies to Your Garden
Bring these beautiful pollinators to your yard by providing them with everything they need.
Filling your garden with butterfly plants creates an inviting, beautiful space welcoming to helpful pollinators. But have you considered attracting monarch butterflies specifically to your garden? It's always a thrill to see these orange-and-black beauties flitting around your flowers to fuel up on nectar during the summer. It can be even more exciting to watch their tiny caterpillars hatch on milkweed and grow a little bigger every day until they make their green cocoons, dotted with gold. If you're extra lucky, you might happen to be there when the new adult butterfly emerges a couple of weeks later and takes its first flight. You can make your garden into a more welcoming haven for these beautiful insects with these seven tips.
1. Milkweed, Milkweed, Milkweed
Planting milkweed remains the best thing that the average gardener can do to help monarchs. It is the most essential building block of a proper monarch habitat; it's where the butterflies lay their eggs and the only thing that the caterpillars will eat. Look for plants in the Asclepias family (such as Asclepias syriaca, Asclepias speciosa, Asclepias incarnata, or Asclepias curassavica, depending on the region where you live). Native species of milkweed are always best because that's what monarchs would be naturally seeking as they migrate through your area. Get your plants from a reputable grower (one who grows without using commercial pesticides or fertilizers), or start them from seed yourself.
2. Keep It Chemical-Free
It's no secret that the widespread use of insecticides and herbicides has contributed to the decline of the monarch population (as well as critically endangering other important pollinators). Many pesticides are non-discriminatory, meaning that when you spray them to kill one type of insect, you kill any that come in contact with the chemical, even beneficial insects. Butterflies are especially susceptible, so it is crucial to avoid the use of any toxins in your monarch habitat. Instead, use organic pest and weed control methods that won't harm pollinators.
3. Plant Nectar-Rich Food Sources
Adult monarch butterflies need more than just milkweed to feed on (while the caterpillars devour the entire plant, the adults drink the nectar from the milkweed flowers). Fill your garden with as many nectar-rich flowering species as possible, planning for early, middle, and late bloom times to ensure that there is a constant supply of seasonal food. This will help attract monarchs flying around in search of food sources, as well as many other butterflies, birds, and pollinators. Some plants that provide plenty of nectar include: joe pye weed, lantana, liatris, echinacea, flowering sages, verbena, buddleja, monarda, rudbeckia, and yarrow. And, of course, milkweed.
4. Grow Colorful Native Plants
Many ornamental flowering species are fantastic for attracting monarchs and other pollinators, but the more native plants you can add to your landscape, the better. Monarchs depend upon finding a diverse food supply, not only during the spring and summer when they are breeding, but also into the fall when they are migrating. Native plant species are perfectly adapted to provide a succession of timely, nectar-rich blooms from spring to fall. The bonus? Native plants require almost no maintenance to survive because they've been growing in your environment long before you came along.
It's also important to fill your garden with a rainbow of colorful blooms. But don't just diffuse color evenly through your design scheme; group your plantings so that there are large drifts of each color. This helps butterflies and other beneficial insects (and especially those tired migrating monarchs) by giving them an easy visual target, and by providing a multitude of nectar-filled blooms within easy reach.
5. Provide Water and Mineral Sources
Butterflies (especially males) typically obtain extra moisture and essential minerals through a behavior known as puddling—this happens in particular during periods of drought and high heat. They will find damp surfaces, such as soil, sand, rocks, or decomposing material (wet from dew, rain, or irrigation), and suck the liquid from it. This is why having a pond, fountain, or other typical garden water feature is not quite adequate; butterflies need dampness more than standing, deep water. Even a naturally formed puddle after a rain is probably too deep; you will only find them puddling around the edges of it.
If your garden doesn't naturally include puddling spots, you can easily create a butterfly puddling pool by filling a shallow dish with garden soil and/or low, small rocks. Place it in a spot that gets full sun, near your nectar plants, and keep it moist by adding water every day, or set it up where it will receive a bit of daily moisture from a drip system. Add minerals periodically by sprinkling salt, compost, or small pieces of decomposing fruit.
6. Rock On
Butterflies are cold-blooded like all insects so they rely on the warmth of the sun to maintain their body temperature. This is why you will only see them active during the warmest parts of the day. Placing flat, smooth rocks and other heat retentive materials in sunny parts of your garden will give them a warm place to rest and recharge. Additionally, damp rock surfaces provide a place for butterflies to puddle and draw out essential minerals while simultaneously warming themselves.
7. Give Monarchs Shelter and Protection
It's also important to surround your monarch habitat with protective plants. Trees, shrubs, and vines with strong, woody stems and dense foliage work perfectly for this, as long as they are sturdy enough to shelter butterflies from stormy weather. This also just happens to be the sort of plant that is ideal for monarch caterpillars to seek out and pupate on; they'll roam sometimes as far as 40 feet from their host milkweed searching for a secure place to build their chrysalis. You'll stumble across these gold-flecked, bright green beauties in the most random places, like under the eaves of roofs, along trellises, underneath hanging pots, tree branches, and flower stalks. They turn clear just as the butterfly is about to hatch—you can see the dark butterfly coiled inside!
Always be on the lookout when you are moving things around in your yard or clearing brush and fallen branches. If you find a chrysalis that is too exposed or is in danger of being damaged, gently relocate it. Many monarch lovers will collect chrysalises and relocate them to contained monarch habitat kits to let them develop and hatch in fully-protected peace.