MANSFIELD — Kelly Stephens won’t let her husband cut down the milkweed that grows at the edge of their pool.
Considered a nuisance plant by most farmers and gardeners, milkweed provides food for Monarch caterpillars and butterflies alike.
“We left it there because I wanted to watch the butterflies,” Stephens said. “My youngest daughter complains it looks like a weed patch out by the pool.”
Stephens doesn’t mind. The poolside nature show is worth it.
But this year, her favorite winged wonder is missing.
“I haven’t seen many monarchs this year. It’s really bothered me,” she said. “Maybe two or three actual butterflies.
“It’s disappointing for me just because I love to watch them.”
Andy Vaughn has also noticed a drop in the local monarch population. Vaughn, who co-owns an urban homesteading company in Madison Township, has spent the last four years marveling at the assortment of butterflies that perch on the zinnias and coneflowers dotting his front yard.
“The one thing that’s lacking this year is the monarchs,” he reflected. “Last year, there were tons.”
Monarch butterflies are well-known across the United States. The migratory monarch is a common staple in elementary school classrooms, where children study and even raise them as part of their science curriculum.
Monarchs are a natural springboard for teaching about life cycles, migration, mimicry and the food chain.
But someday, students may no longer have the chance to see a migratory monarch outside of the glossy pages of a science textbook. The monarch subspecies was recently declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Jason Larson said he was saddened, but not surprised.
“It’s been expected. There’s been a lot of habitat loss to date,” said Larson, director of the Richland County Parks District. “When you think about the Great Plains and all the areas in between, that used to be all types of woodland habitats and prairies and fields.”
Planting butterfly gardens is one way to support migratory Monarchs and other butterflies.
Studies show gardens designed around the insect’s needs can help mitigate the negative affects of urbanization on the species. Another showed that “the abundance and species richness” of adult butterflies increased with the number of flowering plants per butterfly garden plot.
Larson said he believes the trend could be reversed, but it will take time and initiative.
“With a lot of people putting in a lot of pollinator gardens and a lot of roadside plantings, it’s a possibility,” he said. “It really depends on what kind of native plants you’re planting.”
The best butterfly gardens have both nectar plants and host plants, which provide butterflies a place to lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the leaves of the host plant double as a food source for the baby caterpillars.
In order to effectively combat habitat loss, Larson recommends selecting native plants like liatris, purple coneflower and native varieties of goldenrod and milkweed.
Good intentions are often derailed when residential gardeners and municipalities prioritize aesthetic plantings, rather than the dietary needs of native creatures.
“We like to keep things neat and trim and looking like a golf course,” Larson said.
While at least one study shows exotic milkweed may be more attractive to monarchs, some studies also show they it causes high levels of disease in monarch populations.
Vaughn called it “McDonalds for monarchs,” but said he isn’t as concerned that non-native milkweed will harm the insects.
“If we have to plant non-native milkweed species to help serve the endangered monarchs, why wouldn’t we do that to support their survival?” he said.
Gardeners should also consider planting a mix of spring, summer and autumn-blooming plants in order to provide a continuous food source for pollinators.
“Choose plants that vary in color, season of bloom, and height to provide different foraging opportunities and maximum year-round habitat for butterflies,” a factsheet from the Ohio State University Extension Office advises.
Milkweed is essential for gardeners who want to support the monarch population.
While grown butterflies enjoy nectar from a variety of flora, monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed leaves because it’s the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat.
Contrary to popular belief, native varieties of milkweed are not considered invasive in the United States.
The plant’s milky sap does contain toxins that can be harmful to pets, livestock and people if consumed in large quantities, but Larson said it’s perfectly safe to plant in residential areas.
Like any plant, native milkweed varieties can be easily managed by digging them up, mowing over them or simply removing seed pods when plants become too numerous.
“I mow it off if it comes up where I don’t want it,” Stephens said.
Butterflies of all kinds also benefit from mud puddles, where they can slurp up water filled with nutrients from the ground below. As cold-blooded animals, they also require spots to sunbathe in order to maintain the right body temperature.
Gardeners can begin building a backyard butterfly haven any time. Both Larson and Vaughn said it’s not too late to get started this year.
Spring blooming perennials, including milkweed, will thrive if planted between August and October.
“As long as it’s not horribly dry, you can help your plants get established,” Larson said. “Most of the time in Ohio we have fairly mild winters. In the springtime you’re going to be that much further ahead.”
Creating a pollinator-friendly space doesn’t require a perfectly manicured garden — in fact, a messy garden will look much more like home to the monarch butterfly.
“Just plant flowers and quit the chemicals,” Vaughn advised. “They’re not good for the animals and they’re not good for us either. it’s just a better, healthier life.”
Stephens’ approach to butterfly gardening isn’t labor intensive, either. She lets milkweed pop up in certain spots and reserves a portion of her flower beds for wildflower seeds.
“I’m not hardcore, it’s just for fun because I love butterflies,” she said.
While butterfly gardening can be beneficial and beautiful, it’s not without its challenges. After seeing chrysalises in her yard broken open and devoured by wasps and ants, Stephens started collecting chrysalis and hiding them in a small enclosure.
One study found that monarch caterpillars have a higher survival rate outside of butterfly gardens than inside them, likely because the gardens also attract their predators.
The study examined multiple butterfly species across a variety of weeded and non-weeded plots. It found eggs and larvae had survival rates of between 2 and 13 percent, regardless of the plant type or weeding strategy.
“This study suggests that garden plots attracted a diversity of adult butterflies and supported the reproduction of focal species,” the study’s abstract read. “Given lower immature monarch survival within versus outside of plots, further work is needed to examine natural enemy pressure within pollinator gardens.”
One way to avoid this might be planting milkweed separately or on the edge of a butterfly garden, rather than mixing it in with other flowers.
A study from the University of Kentucky suggests monarch eggs and larvae were more abundant in milkweeds that are planted along garden perimeters or in open areas.
HOW TO HELP
Interested in planting a garden of your own?
The 9th annual Richland County Park District Pollinator and Native Plant Festival is a great place to start.
The free festival takes place rain or shine on July 30 and 31 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Gorman Nature Center. In addition to a butterfly tent and children’s activities, guests can get advice from onsite nature experts and shop for native plants from Natives in Harmony, a plant retailer based in Marengo.