Happy 420! Today is a celebration of my favorite kind of weed. This particular plant is just beautiful. The leaves are a gorgeous green color that spiral high into the sky. Depending on the species, the leaves are long and slender or small and wide. No matter the type, they all have one thing in common… the smell is absolutely intoxicating. I bet if you take a deep breath you could even smell some right now. I’m sure you’ve guessed what I’m talking about by now. My favorite plant is the milkWEED plant.
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is very special, as it is the host plant for the iconic monarch butterfly. Host plants provide a site for these butterflies to lay eggs and also act as a food source for the newly hatched caterpillars. The female monarch butterflies are picky. They ONLY lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Monarch caterpillars are just as choosy and ONLY eat milkweed leaves to help them grow and develop. Monarch butterflies cannot and will not exist without milkweed; it’s that simple.
Scientists determine the monarch’s population size by measuring the area of forest land in which they overwinter. Unfortunately, the monarch population has declined severely over the last few decades. Monarch Watch estimates that there are 50 million butterflies per hectare in their overwintering habitats. During the 2017-2018 season, monarchs occupied 2.48 hectares, meaning there were roughly 124 million monarchs. Nearly 20 years ago, in the 1996-1997 season there were 910 million monarchs butterflies. The graph illustrates the population decline. Even today the monarch’s butterflies continue to decrease in numbers. From the 2016-2017 season to the 2017-2018 season, the population experienced a drastic 14.77% decline.
There are several reasons for the decline, but the largest contributor is a lack of milkweed plants. Every fall, the North American monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains make an incredible journey to overwinter in Mexico. Some fly up to 3,000 miles to complete their journey. Along the way to and from Mexico the monarch must find milkweed to lay her eggs and for the caterpillars to feed. Without the milkweed, we will not have monarchs.
There are over 100 species of milkweed plants in the United States. It’s very important to plant native milkweed species. One species of native Georgia milkweed is butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). It’s a perennial with large clusters of bright yellow-orange flowers that blooms from May to September. It attracts bees, wasps, and of course butterflies. Milkweed plants are drought-tolerant perennials meaning once they establish in your garden, they won’t require much maintenance. Because they are perennials, they will come back year after year.
What can you do to help?
The answer is quite simple…plant milkweed. Start a pollinator garden which is designed to include flowers that provide nectar or pollen for a wide range of pollinating insects and birds. Make sure your garden is situated in a sunny spot and includes the following:
- Native milkweed plants
- Native pollinator plants that provide nectar for butterflies and bee’s
- Plants with staggered bloom times so there are blooms for pollinators in the spring, summer, and fall
- Basking rock so the butterfly can rest in the sun
- Water source such as a shallow dish filled with water for the butterfly to drink
Similar to milkweed, there are several other low maintenance, drought-tolerant pollinator plants to include in your garden. Examples include in the following.
Aster – bloom in late summer through the fall and provides a nectar source later in the growing season
Bee balm – brightly colored and attracts all types of pollinators (butterflies, bee’s, birds, and insects)
Purple coneflower – provides nectar for pollinators in the summer and then becomes a great seed source for birds
Goldenrod – develops a beautiful gold bloom in the fall and grows best in sunny spots
Joe Pye Weed – reaches up to 7 feet tall and attracts bees and butterflies with its pink blooms
Verbena – low growing ground cover that thrives in high heat with little water.
Parsley – a biennial that blooms during its second year and serves as the host plant for the Black Swallowtail
Now is the perfect time to start a pollinator garden. Monarchs Across Georgia is a great resource for anyone looking to start one. Here you’ll find an online milkweed field guide, sample pollinator garden plants and layout, and a list of nurseries who sell native milkweed plants.
If you need some inspiration for your pollinator garden, visit the corner of Washington Street and College Avenue in downtown Athens. As part of their Connect to Protect program, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia at the University of Georgia is working with the Athens Downtown Development Authority to add pollinator plants to downtown street corners.
In addition to providing a vital habitat for monarchs, milkWEED and other native plants naturally require less watering and allow you to conserve water. So go out and plant the best kind of weed today…MILKWEED that is. Happy 420!