I have magic memories of my childhood in the Midwest. In school, I studied the transition of egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis/cocoon) to a gorgeous adult butterfly with amazement. Then as the autumn days grew shorter and the temperature dropped, I marveled at flocks of Monarch butterflies migrating. “Look at those flying flowers,” I exclaimed as they took to the sky en masse. Those large flocks are no longer here; monarch populations have dwindled from billions to mere millions. But something can be done.

Monarch butterfly on Swamp Milkweed

Monarch butterfly on Swamp Milkweed

That such delicate creatures weighing less than a gram can fly over 3000 miles—often to the same tree from whence their ancestors came—never ceases to amaze me. In the Monarch’s summer territory (which includes most of North America) butterflies may mate up to seven times, all living from two to six weeks. Then, signaled by the lack of light (shorter days) the new non-reproductive butterflies hatch. (Reproductive butterflies do not migrate south, however, and the migratory ones do not reproduce until the following year.) The creation of these creatures required a lot of planning!

Migration Map

Migration Map

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency provided $2 million this year for “on-the-ground conservation projects.” A mad rush ensued to plant milkweed along the I-35 Monarch corridor, which extends 1,500 miles from Minnesota to Texas and provides spring and summer breeding habitats along key migration pathways. Conservationists had successfully lobbied transportation departments and utilities to reduce their use of herbicides and to encourage milkweed to grow along the roadways and powerlines. Great! This was one government project I could believe in! Monarchs depend on milkweed; it’s the only plant they eat and lay eggs on. And milkweed populations had dropped 21% between 1995 and 2013 due to increased development and herbicide use. But what happened to the I-35 Monarch migration pathway? Chalk it up to big government ineptitude! This summer, the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing, so the Transportation Department came and mowed the new milkweed plants down. No one informed the drivers of the trucks, and their job is the mow the weeds!

However, those living near this corridor can make a difference, says our local paper, called The Laker. If you have a sunny patch of land, you can mix and match flowers to build your own butterfly garden.  Start with basic host plants such as swamp milkweed, broccoli, and bronze fennel. Then choose from perennials, which often reseed themselves, or nectar-rich annuals. Some choices are: butterfly weed, oregano, lantana, purple coneflower (Echinacea), blazing star, black-eyed susan, pink everlasting (sedum), and Mexican sunflower. I had already designed a rain garden last season so it was easy for me to plant what the monarchs need. My question was, “If I plant it, will they come?” The answer: “Yes!” My Wisconsin garden is now part of the Midwest migration path.

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