What butterflies really want (and need)

Butterflies are beautiful, vital pollinators in our gardens and forests

We in the SLV are fortunate to live near overwintering sites for Monarchs in Santa Cruz and Monterey. We have all heard that we can help declining populations by planting milkweed, but planting milkweed close to overwintering populations is disruptive to their migration.

San Lorenzo Valley is the perfect stop for lunch

What the Monarchs need as they pass through the San Lorenzo Valley is nourishing nectar from native plants blooming during the migration periods. All milkweed plants are disrupters as they encourage the Monarch to stop, breed, lay eggs, and possibly not continue their northern migration. This disturbance to their normal journey can cause year-round habitation, which harms rather than helps monarch populations.

Take milkweed off the menu

Non-native Tropical Milkweed
Don’t plant non-native tropical milkweed!
Asclepias Curassavica by Gary Helm, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The non-native tropical milkweed (Asclepius curassavica), the kind sold at most nurseries, hosts Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). OE is the debilitating parasite that causes emerging butterflies to have difficulty expanding their wings and decreases their chances of survival. If you have tropical milkweed in your garden, it is best to eradicate it and substitute a plant native to the SLV to provide nourishment. However, if you choose not to remove it, you can reduce the chance of hosting OE by cutting your milkweed back to the ground a couple of times each season. Fresh, healthy foliage will emerge.

What do butterflies really need to thrive?

So, if you live within 30 miles of an overwintering site, DO NOT plant milkweed and ELIMINATE any you find that has been grown. But DO plant natives that provide nectar during spring migration! Doing so not only ensures the Monarch’s migration success but will also delight you with a fluttering performance of gratitude.

Below is a list of the more common natives that bloom during the spring and early summer. As you can see from this list, many trees and shrubs many of us already have in our yards. And, the beloved California poppy is on the list. But don’t stop here; summer and fall-blooming plants are necessary for the migration trip back to Santa Cruz and Monterey.

Common Natives for Spring and Early Summer

Ceanothus California lilac
Quercus agrifolia Coast Live Oak
Platanus racemosa Western Sycamore
Clarkia amoena Farewell to Spring
Grindella Stricta Gumweed
Acer macrophyllum Big Leaf Maple
Acer negundo Box Elder
Erigonum fasciculatum California Buckwheat
Calycanthus occidentalis Spice Bush
Rosa californica California Wild rose
Arbutus menziesii Madrone
Sisyrinchium bellum Blue Eyed Grass
Baccharis pilularis Coyote Bush
Philadelphus lewisii Mock Orange
Quercus berberidifolia Scrub Oak
Frangula califronica Coffeeberry
Sechschoizia californica California Poppy
Symphyotrichum novae-angliae New England Aster

Featured photo, Monarchs and Asters by Carol Duke

PHOTOS with captions:

Milkweed (native and non-native versions)

Native Butterfly Garden

Monarch Butterfly

The San Lorenzo Valley Native Habitat Restoration Program integrates environmental and community needs to restore the riparian habitat and ensure the ongoing health and beauty of the watershed.

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