Winged Signs of Spring

“The amen! of nature is always a flower.” –Holmes

Early every March the spectacular migration of the Monarch butterfly from Mexico, parts of southern Florida and southern California begins. The migrating butterflies will head north, and the second generation will make it to our area in the corn-belt states in May. Some may go even further north into Canada and some may head east into the New England part of the country. Once they arrive and throughout the migratory journey, the adult Monarchs require a constant food source. In addition, the female Monarchs also require plants on which to lay their eggs. Will your garden be ready whenever they finally arrive in Illinois? Are you familiar with the types of plants Monarchs need and/prefer? What about other types of butterflies and pollinators? Did you know that most of the nectar sources utilized by Monarchs will also help feed other types of butterflies and pollinators?

Let’s start with an explanation of the Monarch life cycle. Other butterflies and moths have similar life stages but the host plants and specific details vary some. The life cycle of a Monarch butterfly (named after King William of Orange, because of its color) begins on the underside of a milkweed leaf when the female deposits an egg no larger than the head of a pin. The striped caterpillar emerges from the egg in 3 to 12 days and immediately starts to feed on milkweed (the only plant they will eat, thus it is the only plant the eggs are laid on). Within 2 weeks the larva will have multiplied its original weight by 2,700. A 6 pound human body that grew at this rate would weigh 8 tons! The larva sheds its skin 5 times as it grows. The final shedding of the larva occurs when the fully developed caterpillar has stopped eating and has located a sheltered perch, such as a small tree limb or leaning fence post. Here the larva weaves a dense net of silk, then grips the fiber while violently dislodging its last larval skin to reveal the pupa. The green chrysalis is studded with gold spots that control color in the developing wings. The pupa turns transparent in about 2 weeks, exposing the features of a grown butterfly. Cracks then spread across the chrysalis wall and the adult appears, pumping fluid into its limp, fleshy wings. Thus begins the Monarch butterfly’s life.

As stated above, the milkweed (Asclepias family) is the only plant that Monarch eggs are laid on and is the only plant the Monarch larva will eat. Monarchs cannot survive without milkweed. Other pollinators ( i.e. butterflies and bees) depend upon milkweed nectar too. Native milkweed varieties can vary state to state. In the Northeast region (including Illinois), the Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca; Swamp Milkweed Asclepias incarnata; Whorled Milkweed, Asclepias verticillata; and Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa; are popular native varieties. Check out for additional information in other areas of the country. Swamp Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, and Swamp Milkweed are more suitable for smaller, metropolitan gardens. These varieties are shorter in stature and less invasive than the Common Milkweed we grew up with. All varieties can be planted in open fields, along roadways and in ditches too. The seeds from all varieties can be collected and thus prevented from spreading throughout the growing area. Experts recommend planting at least 10 individual milkweed plants, if possible, and including at least 2 different species native to your specific growing area. Include the Common Milkweed if you can as Monarch butterflies tend to prefer it.

Another popular variety of butterfly in central Illinois is the Black Swallowtail. This butterfly lays its eggs on several popular herbs; dill, fennel and parsley. Multiple swallowtail larva can often be found on these plants throughout the growing season. Be sure and include plenty of these herbs if growing them for butterflies as the larva will easily decimate a plant. (I have spoken to many people over the years who confused this particular butterfly larva with the dreaded tomato hornworm and eliminated it. Please don’t make the same mistake. Tomato hornworms are green in color with white and black stripes, white and black dots. They also sport a reddish-brown spike or ‘horn’ on one end and are found on tomato plants. If in doubt of the type of larva in your garden, contact your local Extension office expert or us at The Simple Heart of Life herb shop. We would be happy to help you navigate the identification process.) In our wildlife habitat gardens, we ‘host’ Black Swallowtail larva throughout the summer and even into fall. It is not unusual for our gardens to then be home to 15 or 20 swallowtails on any given day. Not a bad trade-off for the sacrifice of a few herb plants!

Adult butterflies, along with bees and other pollinators require nectar to survive. This nectar is obtained from plants. Did you know that the plants in your own garden can help to provide this necessary food? Pollinators of all types need different nectar sources throughout the season. It is a good idea to have at least 3 different kinds of plants in bloom at any given time. This is not always easy to accomplish but it is well worth the effort. By planting flowers and plants with different bloom periods, you will ensure an adequate supply of nectar for pollinators and add visual interest to your gardens throughout the year. The end result is also a more beautiful and appealing yard and neighborhood. Experts also recommend planting (organically) in groups of 5 or more, including bushes or other types of shelter from wind and predators, planting in full sun and including flat rocks for the butterflies to warm up and perch on. Butterflies prefer flowers that are bright red or purple with a narrow tube and spur, as well as a wide area to land on. Bees tend to prefer flowers that are bright white, yellow or blue with a shallow, tubular flower shape.

To get you started, the following is a (partial) list of additional native plants favored by Monarchs and other butterflies. More information can be obtained on-line at Many of these plants will be available at The Simple Heart of Life beginning this Spring. Post a message below or on our Facebook page for additional information.

Early Nectar Sources
Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
Pussy willow (Salix discolor)
Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensus)
Wild strawberry (Fragraria virginiana)
Common blue violet (Viola sororia, Viola spp.)
Mid-Season Nectar Plants
Shrubs and Vines:
Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)
Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa)
Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata, C. tripteris, Coreopsis spp.)
Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Late-Season Nectar Plants
Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea, V. missurica)

Join the movement to help save our pollinators. By making a few simple changes to your own yard and life, you can help to ensure these marvelous creatures are around for future generations to enjoy. Another of life’s simple pleasures!


2 thoughts on “Winged Signs of Spring

  1. Very informative. I have been growing milkweed for years. When I was a child, it was everywhere. Now it is seldom seen in the wild, but happily it is being planted in more and more gardens, both private and public.


    1. You are right Carolee. Milkweed used to be everywhere. I grew up trying to cut it out of the soybean fields even. If only we would have known then how valuable it is for the Monarchs. Thanks for reading and sorry it has taken me so long to respond.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s