Milkweed is such an important plant. Its leaves are the only thing monarch caterpillars will eat, and its flowers attract all kinds of pollinators. So it’s exciting to see several kinds of milkweeds taking off in my yard this year.
The whorled milkweed is the big winner. For several years I couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t grow, even though I bought six-packs of plugs in two different years. And then we put up a rabbit fence, which has made all the difference. There are so many individual plants now that I lose track when counting.
I could tell, right when it first started coming up, that there would be more this year — notice the old stems next to the new shoots.
Now it seems like there are more and more whorled stems every day.
Poke milkweed is such a fun variety. This year it nearly quadrupled.
Swamp milkweed doubled…
…and it’s looking really good.
The common milkweed always shows up by the dozens, so I can’t honestly say that there are more than ever. But there are a lot, and that is good enough.
The prairie milkweed has never done much, but the two plants are back, so I’m happy.
So far, I’ve seen less butterfly weed than before. But it is always a late bloomer compared to the others, so maybe there’s still time for more to pop up.
Added together, there are hundreds of milkweeds in the front and back garden, which makes for great habitat for monarchs.
Now it’s caterpillar season. My garden has been fortunate to host possibly two dozen (or more) from this first generation of 2019. Even the whorled milkweed, with its skinny leaves, has four residents.
In 2017 there was so much monarch activity going on in the front yard, I honestly couldn’t keep up with all the eggs, caterpillars, and butterflies. It was a very entertaining change compared to the previous year, when I found only one caterpillar!
The monarch caterpillars, and the American Lady caterpillars, too, managed to ride out a hailstorm in mid-June:
In previous years I had planted swamp milkweed seeds in the front yard but never saw them appear. In the backyard, I had tried a couple of other varieties such as whorled and the “hello yellow” butterfly weed cultivar, but they were either eaten or overtaken by weeds. Last year, I decided to get serious about trying other milkweed varieties, to not rely too heavily on common milkweed, which often fades too early for the later monarch generations. So in June I picked up a few new milkweeds at the Landscape Revival plant sale: poke, prairie, and whorled (along with a couple non-milkweeds).
Some other time that I’ve already forgotten, I also picked up Sullivant’s and showy. I decided to fence in these new plants (the chicken-wire is not easily seen in this photo, though)…
… and that seemed to make a difference — not only did all of these survive, so did the whorled from years past that I thought was lost, as well as a couple of others that were not planted this year and so I’m not sure what they were. One was a butterfly weed that may have been the old hello yellow or may have been from seed that wandered over from the front yard. The others, I don’t remember at this point; I hope they come back and flower next year so I can find out what they are. But I know that they were milkweeds because all of these, old and new, planted and surprise, ended up with monarch eggs and then caterpillars!
One afternoon while I was giving a garden tour for my Butterfly Buddy, a monarch flew into the backyard to lay eggs. The most amusing part of her visit: she couldn’t figure out how to get over the chicken wire fence protecting the plants, so she first flew all the way around the perimeter, then landed in the middle of the fence and squeezed through one of the small wire openings! I’m really glad there was another witness for that because I’m not sure my husband believed me when I told him later (and I don’t blame him).
When I checked the plants later, I found out that not only had she picked this small showy milkweed, she chose a leaf that already had a hatchling! And on the same plant was a row of four lacewing eggs. When I went back to take a picture with a better camera, the caterpillar had already eaten the egg! That’s one way nature deals with competition, I guess.
In all, I counted seven kinds of milkweed in the backyard, and this monarch laid an egg on six of them! I don’t know whether she also visited the common milkweed in the front yard, but this was a good validation for my plan to plant more species for later generations.
Sullivant’s milkweed with evidence of a caterpillar feeding:
Are whorled milkweed leaves really big enough to support caterpillars? What happens when the caterpillars grow past, say, the third instar?
Nearly all of these plants were very small, not just the whorled milkweed (which is always small, even when fully grown). The exception was the poke milkweed, which was definitely not a first-year plant when I bought it. None were big enough, or perhaps it was that they weren’t established enough, to flower. I saw many caterpillars over the next couple weeks, but as I had worried, I saw none past the third instar. I’m not sure why: not enough food, too much competition, predators, moved to another area (though the front yard is quite far away for a little caterpillar), or something else.
After a disappointing monarch season in 2016, I was thrilled to find many eggs and caterpillars in my yard in 2017. Some became temporary “inside” monarchs when I brought eggs indoors to raise the caterpillars and then release them outside as butterflies.
But wouldn’t you know that after weeks of my tending to the three caterpillars, and days of watching the chrysalises, they decided to wait to emerge until I was out of town? Fortunately I have a Butterfly Buddy who was more than happy to take the chrysalises…
…and send me updates on the three beautiful butterflies!
After that adventure, I took a break from raising caterpillars during the busy-ness of the summer. There was plenty of monarch activity in the garden during that time, which I will detail soon. I waited until after a five-day family reunion to begin again, and on August 7, I collected eight monarch eggs — then figured that was enough! Four of them had already hatched by the next morning. Not sure where two of the caterpillars are in this photo:
It was during this period that one of the caterpillars met a sad end when I wasn’t paying enough attention while cleaning the cage and grabbed a leaf exactly at the spot where it was sitting on the other side. I tried to console myself by noting that this one was much smaller than the others and not progressing well anyway, but it still was my fault.
In the midst of the raising of this group, on August 23, I found this newly hatched monarch caterpillar when checking out the progress of the front garden. (Good thing the common milkweed was still kicking out new leaves.)
August 30: My first release of the season!
A watched chrysalis never opens. Isn’t that how the saying goes? Even though there were three chrysalises like this on Sept. 1, I didn’t see any of them open!
But it was an exciting day, anyway, when the “three sisters” all hung out with me in the garden for the afternoon:
This one starred in a video chat with my nieces and nephew:
The next day, one emerged:
Two more were nearly ready that day, but in unfortunate timing, we were planning to leave for a weeklong trip the next day. This time I hadn’t planned ahead enough to pass them off to my Butterfly Buddy, maybe because I had optimistically thought they would have emerged sooner. So I did the next-best thing and tied the chrysalises to joe-pye weed plants so they could eclose outside and fly off on their own.
Luckily for me, one of them did emerge before we left, as I was waiting impatiently but not impatiently enough to pay close enough attention, and it was almost all the way out before I noticed. I’m always surprised at how quiet this process is; I was standing right there and didn’t hear a thing.
The other one apparently emerged safely, since we found an empty chrysalis when we returned.
Before the trip, I needed to release a caterpillar into the wild, too: the single one I found in late August. It was close to being big enough to transform into a chrysalis, but not close enough:
There’s no way that six days later I would find a caterpillar that had been that large, still in caterpillar form. But it was an odd coincidence to find a fully-grown caterpillar in the same area the night we returned:
Of course, I brought this one inside, too, and a day and a half later, it transformed:
On the autumnal equinox, he became my last butterfly of the season.