Environmental Almanac: Give monarchs a place to grow
If there's a North American insect that qualifies for the label "charismatic," it's the monarch butterfly. People who recognize no other butterfly by name know monarchs, and many even remember some of the things that set them apart from other insects: the fact that each fall a cohort migrates from as far north as Canada to a single mountain forest in central Mexico; the fact that monarch caterpillars are unpalatable to would-be predators because they feed exclusively on milkweed plants; the fact that their striking coloration as both caterpillars and adults warns predators away and is mimicked by other butterflies that are not actually toxic.
Fewer people are aware that, like many other charismatic creatures, monarchs are declining rapidly as a species — by a staggering 90 percent over the past two decades. The wintering population of monarchs in Mexico is estimated according to the amount of forest they occupy, and this year that area was only 1.7 acres. That's a record low, and it's less than half of last year's area, which was itself a record low. Worse, these low numbers are in line with long-term trends.
This is grim news.
When faced with such news, many people — including you, I hope — ask first, "What can I as an individual do to help?" The frustrating answer to that question is typically, "nothing." No matter how far a person goes to reduce his or her own carbon footprint, he or she is not going to preserve polar bear habitat on his or her own.
The case is somewhat different with monarchs, though, because people can provide important habitat for them right at home. (Unlike bears, etc., which in Champaign are specifically prohibited by ordinance.) All you need to do is cultivate some milkweed for monarch caterpillars to feed on as they mature.
Before you turn your nose up at the idea of installing a plant with "weed" in its name, let me also remind you that some members of the milkweed family are quite pretty and well-behaved, completely at home even in the most conventional flower garden. At least one, anyway; it goes by the common name, butterfly milkweed, or the formal name Asclepias tuberosa.
Butterfly milkweed is an easy-to-grow perennial characterized by attractive foliage and bright orange flowers. I've planted it everywhere I've lived over the past two decades, and the monarchs have never failed to find it.
Fortunately for residents of East Central Illinois, an opportunity to buy butterfly milkweed is upon us. It's the annual native plant sale conducted by the local land conservation group Grand Prairie Friends (GPF). I spoke recently with James Ellis, board president for GPF, and he assured me the group has hundreds of butterfly milkweed plants ready to go.
In addition, he pointed out, they have also cultivated another milkweed species for sale this year, Sullivant's milkweed, which is a taller, slightly wilder looking cousin whose flowers come out in a pinkish-purple cluster 3 inches across.
I should emphasize that in addition to the two milkweeds, more than 60 other species of perennial plants native to our region will be available at the GPF sale, including wide varieties of both grasses and flowers. While these may not host monarch caterpillars, they benefit other native insects in ways exotic plants do not. This, in turn, provides an important benefit to all wildlife of our area, because insects are a source of food for so many other creatures.
The sale will take place at Lincoln Square Village in downtown Urbana on Saturday and will run from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. GPF volunteers will be available to help you pick out plants. All plants are grown from seed by volunteers, and proceeds from the sale support the entire range of GPF activities.
A complete list of plants available and other details about the sale can be found at grandprairiefriends.org/plantsale.php.
Also on Saturday, the Urbana Park District will offer a workshop on gardening with native plants, which will include a screening of the short film "Plight of the Monarchs" by local photographers Cindy and Kirby Pringle. The Pringles will be on hand to share their insights about the film and gardening for wildlife.
Register through Friday by calling the Phillips Recreation Center at 367-1544.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.