Pick up milkweed for monarchs on Oct. 15

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A monarch butterfly landing on milkweek. (Courtesy photo)

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By Denise Cottrell, Yolo County Master Gardeners
Special to the Express

Look, it’s a butterfly! Butterflies bring a sense of joy and wonder. As soon as one comes into view, most people tend to point and watch them as they fly. One butterfly that used to be a frequent visitor to our gardens, the Western Monarch butterfly, is endangered and requires help from communities in California.

The UCCE Master Gardeners of Yolo County and members of Winters Friends of the Library have partnered with the Statewide Monarch Fellowship Call to Action (https://www.monarchfellowship.com) to provide milkweed and yarrow seedlings to Winters’ residents for fall planning to support the Monarch’s breeding and nectar habitat.

On Oct. 15 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Master Gardeners with the Winters Friends of the Library will hold a plant sale at the Winters Community Library Teaching Garden (708 Railroad Ave.) While supplies last, two types of native milkweed, Narrow Leaf (Asclepias fascicularis) and Showy (Asclepias speciosa), and common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) will be free as long as they last to those who want to participate in increasing Monarch butterfly habitat.

Why the Western Monarch butterfly? The California Department of Fish and Wildlife reported that the western population of Monarch has experienced dramatic swings in population, with a low of less than 2,000 in 2020-2021, to over 200,000 in 2021-22. (https://wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Invertebrates/Monarch-Butterfly). These dramatic swings demonstrate that the population is not stable when you consider that the population in the 1980’s numbered from one to four million.

Scientists report the butterflies are at critically low levels due to the destruction of their milkweed habitat along their migratory route in addition to increased development, climate change, and the use of pesticides and herbicides. California is an important habitat for the Monarch as they migrate from west of the Rockies. Some fly over 1,000 miles to reach the coast of California where they shelter in the winter.

Creating a corridor of native milkweed along their migratory route in California is a critical part of the survival of the Monarch. Native milkweed is the only host plant on which they lay their eggs. Providing milkweed as a larval host in addition to yarrow or another native nectar source for feeding creates a supportive garden environment which will aid to increase the Monarch population.

If you decide to plant milkweed, be prepared for it to be eaten by Monarch caterpillars. A bonus for the caterpillars is the alkaloids inside the plant are picked up by the caterpillars and give them protection by making them taste awful to predators. So, if you find the milkweed in your garden has been devoured, remember, the caterpillars will undergo metamorphosis to become beautiful Monarch Butterflies.

What will you plant? Narrow leaf milkweed grows 1 foot wide by one to three feet tall. It blooms summer-fall in clusters of lavender or lavender-tinted white flowers. It does tend to become weedy. This deciduous plant will die back to the ground before reviving in the spring. This plant is often covered with aphids, so you may not want to plant it in a prominent space in your garden. Plant narrow leaf milkweed in full sun in an area with good drainage. Plant in full sun with low, moderate to high moisture, however once established it will thrive with summer irrigation at a maximum of two times a month.

Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) grow to approximately four feet wide by four to six feet tall. This plant also dies back in winter, but its roots will continue to grow and shoot up leaves in spring. It is a summer flowering perennial with fragrant furry pale pink to pinkish-purple flowers arranged in thick umbels. It spreads by underground rhizomes, forming an expanding clump. The deciduous showy milkweed, requires full sun and low moisture, and once established, summer irrigation at a maximum two times a month,

Planting milkweed is just a beginning. You can help all butterflies, birds, and bees too by planting a native garden. The cash or check only Plant sale will feature plants from Morningsun Herb Farm of Vacaville. The plants offered for sale provide habitat for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds including a variety of dwarf butterfly bushes, lavenders, ornamental sages, succulents, culinary herbs, and various California native plants plus many more.

If you have any gardening questions, UCCE Master Gardeners will be available to answer your questions about the plants you wish to purchase as well as other gardening questions. If you are unable to attend the plant sale and find you have a gardening question, call the Master Gardener hotline at 530 666-8736 or email mgyolo@ucdavis.edu.

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