Gardening: Milkweed crucial for monarch butterflies

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

The plight of the beautiful monarch butterfly and its loss of habitat has been front-page news for several years.

Unlike many butterflies that feed on a variety of plants, monarchs cannot live without milkweed because it’s the only plant their caterpillars will feed on, so it’s crucial that landowners plant members of the Asclepia family if we have any chance of saving these winged wonders.

Milkweeds have thick roots that grow deep into the soil so they resent disturbance and attempting to transplant them from the wilds is often unsuccessful.

When planting container-grown varieties, take care to disturb the roots as little as possible. However, they can be carefully divided in early spring.

The seeds of milkweed require six weeks or more of cold stratification, so if you decide to save and plant them, put them on a damp paper towel, roll it up and seal in a plastic bag. I store seeds that need cold stratification in glass jars in the refrigerator and plant them early in spring as soon as the soil reaches 40 degrees. Plants that germinate in spring will bloom the following year.

Native plant guru Douglas Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home” (Timber Press) says golden rods (Solidago sp.) are also rock stars when it comes to pollinator plants. They provide the monarchs that crucial nectar in the fall when they begin their migration to Mexico. The long blooming cultivated variety “Fireworks” lights up the fall garden. For a more compact growth habit look for “Little Lemon” or “Peter Pan.”

If you wish to learn more about the fascinating lives of the monarchs, the perils they experience in nature and are now facing with loss of habitat and what can be done to help them survive, you’ll want to read “The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly” by Kylee Baumle (St. Lynn’s Press). Illustrated by beautiful photos, Baumle packed this work with carefully researched facts, online resources, projects and a road map of how to join the movement to save the monarch and other butterflies that are at risk in today’s world. This work is garnering rave reviews.

Another book you will enjoy is “Bird Watcher’s Butterflies Back Yard Guide” by Erin Gettler (Coolsprings Press). Stunning color photos of more than 50 of our native inhabitants make identification easy and an invaluable guide to beginning a life list of these fascinating creatures. Gettler, a noted butterfly authority, also includes information on how to attract and nurture these wing wonders into our gardens and landscapes.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears on Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at