July 10, 2016

TEXAS GARDENERS PREPARE FOR MONARCHS: On Saturday, while running errands in the car, I flipped on the radio to get some news. The host of the Saturday morning gardening program was discussing growing plants in your home garden that will nourish monarch butterflies as they pass through Texas enroute to Mexico. He indicated that for years gardeners living in the US “migration corridor” have been running highly distributed garden cafes and truck stops for the butterflies, with milkweed the primary menu item. Milkweed, he said, earnestly. Milkweed, he repeated.

I knew about the decline in monarch butterfly populations and efforts to protect habitat, particularly in Mexico’s winter “monarch colonies.” I’m a fan of monarch butterflies. As a kid I lived in West Texas during the worst years of the great 1950s drought. Migrating monarchs were explosive orange blossoms among the tumbleweeds.

But what intrigued me most was the host’s “we do this ourselves” approach. The effort he described sounded like an authentic volunteer operation by American citizens — “do your bit where you live” because you can and you care.

I wondered it was self-organized. A little internet research suggests that the project is a volunteer effort, for the most part self-organized though encouraged by university agricultural programs and government agencies. The US Department of Agriculture has a finger in it, and engages in some non-coercive cheerleading. This Fish and Wildlife Service webpage has a vague echo of doom-mongering.

In 2015 Fish and Wildlife put $3.2 million into restoring and conserving monarch-supporting habitat with special focus on “the I-35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota…” Texas has an interesting and extensive state program.

Monarch populations began declining in the late 1990s. Harsh weather (2013-2014) in the monarchs’ Mexican winter quarters took a heavy toll. The Fish and Wildlife Service now says populations (based new data) are rebounding.

Which brings us back to milkweed. The radio host preached the gospel of milkweed. Milkweed, he said, is the plant for spring– as we gardeners know, monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed. But what are the best plants we Texas gardeners can grow to provide sap to monarch butterflies flying south in late summer on their way to Mexico? Milkweed scores again.

As I turned the radio off the show host said returning monarchs will feed on nectar from other late blooming wildflowers. (Hence the term “nectar corridor,” used by the USDA.)

This site makes his point: “A mix of native flowers with different bloom times, including some overlap in flowering, to ensure a stable food source for butterflies.”

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