The Milkweed Project

The Milkweed Project: A Dunwoody Nature Center Initiative to Save the Monarch Butterfly

The Nature Center has embarked on a major initiative to help protect the monarch butterfly and raise awareness of the troubling decline of the population. Below, is a full synopsis of the issue, what can be done, and what the Nature Center has done to support our mission of cultivating environmental understanding and stewardship with a grassroots effort to restore lost milkweed habitat in our community for the Monarch Butterfly. As you’ll see from the materials below, there is a simple, elegant solution to the problem.

The Process

Every year 100 million monarch butterflies make an extraordinary journey, some of them traveling all the way from Canada to the Transvolcanic Mountains in Mexico, where they will spend the winter. In the spring they will mate and head north once again. The female will fly until she locates a patch of milkweed (Asclepias), then lays her eggs and dies. These eggs will develop through the larva and pupae stage until the newly emerged adults will fly further north to a new patch of milkweed and lay their eggs. This process continues until the Monarch is again spread throughout the U. S. and Canada. This continues through the spring and summer, generation after generation of Monarchs looking for milkweed and laying their eggs.

 

The Issue

Monarch butterflies are one of the major pollinators in American gardens, fields and farms.  They are a critical element in our food supply.  And they have been disappearing by the millions over the last 20 years.  The Xerces Society, a major butterfly research organization, estimates that the population of Monarch butterflies was over 1 billion in 1992.  In the winter of 2013-14, the population was estimated to be 35 million.  That represents a 96% loss of Monarchs over a 20 year period.
• Monarchs must have milkweed. They have an obligate relationship with this family of plants. No milkweed = no monarchs.
• Many localities treat Asclepius as a noxious weed and destroy it, usually by spraying herbicide which kills both the milkweed and adult nectaring plants. This happens along highway edges, public parks, in agricultural settings, and in residential developments.
• Pesticide use kills huge numbers of Monarch eggs, larva, and adults.
• Habitat destruction for development of new roads, housing developments, commercial development, and agricultural expansion has negative consequences for Monarchs.

 

The Nature Center’s Project Milkweed – Plans and Objectives

The Nature Center’s master gardeners grew milkweed and our partners at Post Properties have purchased mature plants for distribution. We have currently distributed hundreds of plants, and we are continually sourcing more plants. Further, Post Properties has already pledged to plant Milkweed Gardens at all of their properties in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh and has developed a design for implementation.

The UPS Foundation has partnered with the Nature Center for the project and has committed more than $15,000 towards purchasing plants and educational materials to help further raise awareness of the troubling decline of the monarch population.

To extend the reach of the program, the staff of the Nature Center collaborated with the Dunwoody elementary schools to educate them about the issue at hand, and bring the experience into the classroom with butterfly rearing kits, grow racks, seeds, and other instructional items. In addition, we provided them with plants, and together planted them at the schools and in the fall will bring curriculum into the classroom that celebrates Monarchs, raises awareness, and inspires the families affiliated with the schools and beyond to plant milkweed at home. We are currently still seeking additional funding to bring this program throughout the metro Atlanta region and, eventually, the state of Georgia and beyond.

The Nature Center recently received its Monarch Waystation certification http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/ -for the entry garden that was installed as part of our front entrance renovations (that also included an ADA accessible entry ramp and a newly constructed entry plaza). This major feature of the Nature Center was planted with native plants, pollinators, hardscape, and of course, milkweed. An interpretive sign concerning the monarch butterfly and information on developing a pollinator garden for homeowners will also be a component of the garden.

At our major fundraising event, Monarchs & Margaritas, held on April 25th, we dedicated a specific “fund-a-need” initiative in support of the Milkweed Project. This further raised the visibility of the program in front of an influential audience familiar with the Nature Center and amenable to our advocacy of the Monarch and raised an additional $9,000 in support of the project. We also be distributed milkweed seeds to event attendees.

The City of Dunwoody has committed to support the Milkweed Project by allocating space in each of the city parks for milkweed (Park locations for Milkweed Project: Brook Run Park Community Garden Area, Windwood Hollow Park, Dunwoody Park, Georgetown Park, Donaldson Bannister Farm, Vernon Oaks Park, and the future Park on Pernoshal Court), and working with the Nature Center on an education campaign with the city landscaping staff to eliminate the use of Roundup in these areas. The Nature Center will provide educational signage about the issue in each of the milkweed planting areas. Further, on Monday, April 13th, the city announced a resolution from council in support of the project, officially marking the beginning of the campaign. The Dunwoody Homeowners Association and Bill Grant Homes have also agreed to incorporate milkweed into their Adopt-a-spot locations.

Our annual Butterfly Festival, now in its 22nd year, is the largest single event at the Nature Center with recent crowds of over 3,000 from across the southeast. As the signature event of the Nature Center, we use this day of entertainment to fulfill our mission to educate all ages about the wonders and fragility of our natural environment. Attendees get an up-close look at one of Nature’s most beautiful and delicate species as they enter the butterfly tents and watch hundreds of butterflies feed on nectar producing plants and fruits. This is a prime opportunity to promote the project and distribute milkweed plants and seeds.

In the fall, the Nature Center will be hosting a series of films that highlight topical environmental issues. These free, public forums will be led by a moderator to facilitate discussion. We will be featuring “The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies” on Wednesday, October 21 at 7:00 with a Q&A facilitated by Laurie Crooks of Monarchs Across Georgia.

How to help the Butterflies and their Migration

Conservation groups such as the Monarch Joint Venture, Monarch Watch, Journey North, and Monarchs in the Classroom urge gardeners, landowners and agencies to plant native milkweed and to protect existing milkweed habitat. It’s an elegant and easy solution to the problem. You can help keep milkweed – and the Monarch butterflies – alive by planting a milkweed garden in areas that lie along the migratory route. It’s an easy and beautiful solution to the problem. For Georgia, there are two important native milkweed plants (planting non-native milkweed may actually harm the Monarch Butterfly):
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
This milkweed is distinctive for its orange color. It carries the common name of Butterfly Weed in addition to 14 other names, including Canada root, fluxroot, yellow milkweed, butterfly love, butterfly flower, and Indian posy.  It is highly attractive to nectaring butterflies who are drawn to its bright orange to yellowish, nectar-rich flowers. A. tuberosa is perfectly adapted to life in a home garden, staying in place with a long bloom season. Do not confuse this plant with the commonly called “butterfly bush,” which is the buddleia, or buddleia bush. Buddleia bush is native to China, and while its flowers do attract many butterflies, not one single butterfly in North America can use it as a host plant, a plant that will provide food for the emerging caterpillars.

Habitat

Bloom
Period

Color

Height
Inches

Moisture

Plant
Spacing

Lifespan

Sun to
Lt. Shade

May to September

Orange

18 to 30

Dry to
Average

16 to 30

Perennial

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Asclepius incarnata, is the one known as swamp milkweed. It has more narrow, pointed leaves than most, and its seed pods mirror that shape. They have a branching structure, with showy pink/red flowers. They prefer moist conditions as you might guess, and can become somewhat decimated by summer’s end. This is another milkweed with many common names; it seems that the more widespread the plant, the more names become attached to it. This milkweed comes highly recommended by many as a garden plant, although in some cases it may have the potential to colonize and spread.

 

Habitat

Bloom
Period

Color

Height
Inches

Moisture

Plant
Spacing

Lifespan

Sun to
Lt. Shade

August &
September

Pink

30 – 60

Average
to Moist

18 – 36

Perennial

 

Where to Buy Milkweed

(From EEA website. Note: It is always a good idea to contact these nurseries or websites directly to check for availability of stock before visiting or purchasing!)

Georgia Nurseries
Garden Hood (Atlanta)  http://www.gardenhoodatlanta.com
Nearly Native Nursery (Fayetteville)  http://www.nearlynativenursery.com/
Kelli Green Garden Center (Marietta)  http://kelligreengardencenter.com/
Goodness Grows (Lexington)  http://www.goodnessgrows.com/
Randy’s Perennials & Water Gardens (Lawrenceville)  http://randysnursery.com/
Scottsdale Farms (Alpharetta/Milton)  http://www.scottsdalefarms.com/
Georgia Vines (Claxton)  http://www.georgiavines.com/

Online Nurseries

Shooting Star Nursery  http://shootingstarnursery.com
Prairie Moon Nursery  http://www.prairiemoon.com/
Monarch Flyway (for bulk seed)  http://buymilkweed.com/

Sample Pollinator Gardens

What other plants complement milkweed in a garden and attract pollinators? It is advisable to include plants the butterfly will need at all four stages of its life cycle. The egg and larvae stage are restricted to species of milkweed, while adults feed on flowers that are fragrant, rich in nectar, and large enough for the butterfly to land on. Favorite flowers are mainly from the sunflower and daisy family of plants. But any yellow, pink, orange or purple nectar-producing flower will do. The following garden plans are designed planting in full sun (minimum of 6 hours), with morning sun being more desirable than afternoon sun, if possible. In addition to milkweed for monarchs, a full pollinator garden should provide host plants for at least 5 additional butterfly or moth species.
1. Milkweed – Monarchs (and Queens in south GA)
2. Aster – Pearl Crescent
3. Parsley – Black Swallowtail
4. Passionvine – Gulf Fritillary and Variegated Fritillary
5. Purple Coneflower – Silvery Checkerspot
6. Wild Indigo – Wild Indigo Duskywing

Ideally, the garden will contain 4 plants that bloom in the spring, 4 plants that bloom in the summer, and 4 plants that bloom in the fall (see below)

Spring

Summer

Fall

Coreopsis Agastache Aster
Crimson Clover Milkweed Goldenrod
Verbena Parsley Joe Pye Weed
Wild Indigo Passionvine Pineapple Sage
Purple Coneflower

Rectangular Garden Design – for at least a 13’ by 6’ plot (courtesy of Monarchs Across Georgia)

 

Pollinator Garden Plants:

Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum) and Larkspur (Consolida ambigua), which may be used as a substitute, are annuals usually sold as seeds instead of container-grown plants. They are both best planted from seeds in the fall. Crimson Clover is commonly grown as a cover crop and is often available at hardware stores, feed-and-seed stores, or garden centers. After blooming, it will die off but will likely reseed itself. It may also “move around” to fill in any available gaps in the garden.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a biennial and will bloom during its second year. It may return from seed on its own or may need to be replaced every two years by purchasing transplants.

Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) is considered a tender perennial in north Georgia. A layer of mulch will help protect it over the winter.

Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) and Goldenrod (Solidago spp) may benefit from staking to prevent them from falling over. Or, they may be cut back (not all the way to the ground) earlier in the growing season to help create shorter sturdier plants.

Passionvine (Passiflora incarnata) climbs by tendrils and will need a trellis for support. It may need a little “training” to keep it on the trellis instead reaching out to also grow on the other plants in the garden.

Milkweeds support an entire community of insects and will likely attract small yellow aphids throughout the growing season as well as orange and black milkweed bugs as seed pods begin to form. Tussock moth caterpillars may also be found feeding in large groups. Milkweed, Monarchs and More: A Field Guide to the Invertebrate Community in the Milkweed Patch is an excellent book for helping to identify other interesting members of the Milkweed community.

Silvery Checkerspots overwinter as caterpillars so be careful not to do too much clean-up around the bases of Purple Coneflowers.

Puddling areas may be created using most any type of container that holds water including flower pot saucers, trash can lids, etc. Bury the container to the top of its rim, and then fill it with a combination of small rocks plus sand or garden soil. Adding compost or composted manure can make the spot even more appealing by adding minerals.

Basking areas can be made by placing flat rocks in a sunny patch of the garden or even in the puddling area. These rocks can also make nice stepping stones for the gardener and reduce soil compaction by keeping feet out of other areas where plants are growing. A log can also make a great basking spot.

A layer of mulch in the garden will help conserve soil moisture and suppress weeds. Removing spent flowers, called deadheading, can encourage more blooms. Don’t remove all spent flowers from the plants you want to produce seeds though!

Want to Help?

A limited amount of funding is available for schools to join our Milkweed program. Please call our program office to learn more – (770) 394-3322

Become a certified Monarch Waystation

Learn more at www.monarchwatch.org

 

Other resources

Monarchs Across Georgia – http://www.eealliance.org/monarchs-across-ga
Creating Monarch Waystations – Monarch Watch http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/
The University of Minnesota Monarch Lab http://monarchlab.org/
The Flight of the Butterflies – http://www.flightofthebutterflies.com/conservation-preservation/
Monarch Joint Venture – http://www.monarchjointventure.org

Tracking Milkweed

Below is a map of where milkweed has been planted through the Milkweed Project. If you know of an area in our community with milkweed, please email jackie@dunwoodynature.org with the address of where the milkweed is planted. You can see the overall impact of the project via the Google Map below.