view counter

If You Plant It, They Will Come

Milkweed nurtures monarch caterpillars

Plant milkweed, we’re told, and monarch butterflies will come. It’s true. My milkweed is crawling with caterpillars.
    Only one or two of the orange-winged monarchs alighted on this little grove of milkweed when I was watching. I saw no egg-laying or tiny eggs on the undersides of the spearhead-shaped leaves. Only when I noticed the sorry state of the patch did I see caterpillars. Clippers in hand, I had cut a branch when a horned head poked out at me.
    A half-dozen yellow-white-and-black-striped caterpillars were devouring the milkweed, reducing it to stems.
    A week later, the population had risen to a dozen and a half two-plus-inch-long hungry caterpillars.
    Clearly, a lot was going on when I wasn’t looking.
    Any day now, big change is coming. After a couple weeks of voracious eating, the monarch caterpillar hooks itself to a leaf and shimmies into its homemade silk chrysalis. Inside, the caterpillar metamorphoses, emerging in about 10 days as a gorgeously winged monarch.
    Those butterflies will drink the nectar of other plants in my butterfly garden — Joe Pye weed, ironweed, boneset, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower and more — before heading south and west in the later stages of a journey whose map they inherit.
    The annual pre-winter migration from Canada to Mexico takes four generations, each lasting roughly six weeks.
    This generation of monarchs must be rising all over Chesapeake Country, as my butterfly garden was part of a widespread campaign to bolster the species. Two dozen neighbors planted their own gardens, and our Fairhaven effort joined many more throughout the region and the nation, all part of the Monarch Watch Waystation Program.
    Keep your eyes open! On the wing, new life should soon be invigorating this threatened, far-traveling species.