Arboretum Paths: Native milkweed, and monarch butterflies

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Longleaf milkweed is blooming now in the Arboretum’s Savanna Exhibit, and has also been spotted along local roadsides (Photo, Crosby Arboretum Archives, Melinda Lyman).

Longleaf milkweed is blooming now in the Arboretum’s Savanna Exhibit, and has also been spotted along local roadsides (Photo, Crosby Arboretum Archives, Melinda Lyman).

Lately, it seems like every time I reach for a garden magazine, visit a nature-oriented website, or spend leisure time on social media, I come across articles on the current plight of the monarch butterfly. Populations of these migrating butterflies have recently hit an all-time low, to the concern of scientists.

Articles and online sources point out that factors that have been contributing to the population declines include the recent years of extreme weather, loss of forest habitat in Mexico where the species overwinters, and elimination of available milkweed through managing lands in the U.S. for agricultural crops.

Several years ago, the Arboretum held a butterfly program, and we listened raptly as the presented described the arduous trip these tiny creatures will make on their way from the U.S. to where they winter in the high-altitude fir forests of Central Mexico. At times they may cross 500 miles of open water across the Gulf of Mexico. Some may have a 3,000 mile journey that begins in Canada. Take a quick spin on the Web to locate maps of the Americas showing these amazingly long migration routes.

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Some of the program attendees had been to Mexico and seen for themselves the awesome sight of hundreds of thousands of orange butterflies roosting in the fir trees. In certain areas, their habitat has been preserved and developed into popular tourist attractions. An Internet search for video clips will allow you to get a taste of what visitors experience in these forest preserves.

The obvious solution to helping the populations is to preserve, and plant more milkweed. Each region of the country has its own species unique to that area. There are approximately seventy species of milkweed native to the United States, and about half of these are regularly used as monarch butterfly host plants. Some of these are very rare or best suited to their natural habitat, while others will do just fine in your home garden.

A search on the Web will reveal that while there are many books available on monarch butterflies, it is difficult to find one focused specifically on milkweed species. However, many informative sites are available online and are given in the notes so that you can learn the species best suited to each region of the U.S. It’s not enough to know milkweed is needed. We need to know which are preferred or more frequently visited by monarchs, and most importantly, which are easiest for us to grow?

The Arboretum has two milkweed species which occur in our south pitcher plant bog, fewflower milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata), and longleaf milkweed (Asclepias longifolia). Longleaf milkweed is blooming now. It is a small plant with small purple and white clusters that you must look at closely to realize they do indeed have purple coloration. The tall fewflower milkweed has bright red-orange blooms like small beacons, which will be towering above the savanna’s grasses in a few months.

On a trip down local roadsides last week, senior curator Jill Mirkovich and I spotted a longleaf milkweed waving at us from the bank of a roadside ditch. It is nice to recognize these species occurring in places other than the Arboretum. We perform regular prescribed burns in the Savanna Exhibit, and this promotes a higher species diversity than may be found elsewhere in the area county so we see this species often. But it is heartening to recognize them in other locations.

Last week, we received an exciting package! We thrilled to open a treasure box of native perennial seed, which is now available in our gift shop. Two species of milkweed, butterfly weed, a.k.a. common milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) are included in the selection. You can see a quick overview of the seed packages on our Facebook page.

If the subject of monarchs and milkweed interests you, make a point to do some research online. Find range maps that show the distribution of milkweed species. Stay tuned, as the Arboretum will be offering more information and future programs on this topic.

On Friday night, May 8, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., the Arboretum will be holding a Night Insect Collecting event. This is a great opportunity for family fun! Many insects are emerging during the spring, and children will thoroughly enjoy the night entomology event led by Hancock County Extension Agent Christian Stephenson. Collecting equipment will be provided. Bring your flashlight! No charge for members, non-members, adults $5 and children $2.

The Arboretum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59). For more information about our programs and events, see the website or call 601-799-2311.

FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION: Read more about the recent decline of the monarch, and what you can do to help re-build their populations. Search online to read research-based Extension Service information on or Enter the keywords “USDA Forest Service” and “milkweed” to Websites such as The Xerces Society for Insect Conservation’s Project Milkweed. Comprehensive regional guides, developed with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, may be downloaded from the Xerces Society website. Organizations such as Monarch Watch or The Monarch Join Venture also provide useful information targeted to each region of the U.S.

By Patricia Drackett