It is the time of year when monarch butterflies have enthralled me over much of the past three decades. Ever since studying and teaching about them, I have always enjoyed when their amazing transformation and migration takes place.
It is this time of year the monarchs hatched west of the Rockies since mid-August somehow are not motivated to mate and lay eggs. Instead, they begin flying south hoping to reach the mountains in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, where they have never been before. The millions lucky enough to survive the thousands of miles of flying will spend the winter at a 10,000-foot elevation, hanging in their favorite oyamel fir trees, sometimes driven to the ground by heavy snow, only to crawl back up with warming sunshine.
Come late February and early March, those with enough stored energy will mate, and soon head north, hopefully laying eggs, with their offspring, two or three generations away, making it all the way back here in April or May. This year seemed to be a good year, with more eggs and caterpillars being found in June and July than most recent years. And now the number of migrants on the move also seems high.
Over the years I have seen monarch populations go through up-and-down cycles, with the downward trend seeming to be winning the race to what some think might be eventual extinction. A Newsweek article earlier this year, titled "Monarch Butterflies are Going Extinct – How Can We Save Them," pointed out many factors leading to population declines. However, the article states, perhaps the greatest challenge to the monarch butterfly is the depletion of the milkweed plant, which serves as their food, breeding ground and habitat while traveling north.
While this may be true, I believe another factor plays an equally important role in monarch survival — the availability of nectar plants for the months-long arduous southward migration. While milkweed numbers have declined due to farming practices over the past few decades, the native prairies that have grown nectaring plants for migrating monarchs have been decimated over the last century. I believe leading the list of prairie plants important to the monarch is meadow blazing star, one of a handful of blazing star varieties, but without question their favorite nectar source.
Recently I was sent a picture from friend Carol Smyrk, showing multiple monarchs on a meadow blazing star plant. The plant, now over 6 feet tall, attracts numerous monarchs and gives Carol and her husband enjoyment watching the monarchs, as well as visiting bees.
I gave Carol the plant two years ago, as she was a very good friend of my wife, Linda, and I thought it would remind her of their good times together at water aerobics. I have also given or sold these plants to others in hopes they, too, would enjoy seeing all the monarchs this plant attracts. This spring I planted more than 50 of them in my yard, only to have most eaten by deer, but the few left have lately been well-visited by monarchs. I also planted annual zinnias alongside the blazing star, as they also seem well-liked by monarchs, as well as other butterflies and bees.
For years at Quarry Hill, I envisioned planting a whole field full of the blazing star plants, creating a monarch attraction similar to two former Rochester prairie sites which once hosted thousands of monarchs each fall. One is now gone, yielding to the expanded Eastwood Golf course, and the second, at Northern Hills Prairie Park, has been severely altered because of nearby development.
However, I recently got a chance to visit the nursery field where the blazing star plants I have gotten the past couple years got their start, and it re-ignited my interest in creating a blazing star field for monarchs. There I saw what I estimated to be a thousand monarchs feeding on the hundreds of blazing star planted at the site. Driving home, I again envisioned where I might create such a place right here in Rochester.
I will keep readers posted if I move forward with this dream. In the meantime, I would encourage anyone wanting to draw monarchs to their yards to consider planting meadow blazing star, which I hope to be able to help provide next spring for those interested.