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Goldfinches and Monarchs, a Perfect Pair

monarchs-300x226Hardly do we ever think of these two creatures together, and yet, by planting Black-eyed Susans and Milkweed we are inviting the two to co-mingle.  (Don’t fret, Goldfinches are seed eaters.)  Really, the two aren’t likely to go palling around together; butterflies make it a habit of avoiding birds, but the thought is rather sweet in a Disney sort of way.

The broader concept of Monarchs and Goldfinches is really the idea that what we put in our gardens matters.  It has always mattered, but perhaps not in the way that it does now.  After decades of population growth, continuous development, and public and suburban installation of alien plant species, we have created an environment wholly inhospitable to local, and migratory wildlife.  Not only have native habitats been destroyed, but what is offered as replacement is often of little value to those living things that need food, shelter, and breeding ground.  Drive from Washington, D.C. to Boston and you will see what I mean.  The entire east coast is just one suburb after another as you go from major city to major city.  There is no longer “out there.”  What was once hundreds of thousands of acres of untouched landscape is now our yards.

The message is slowly getting out – we must do more to revive biodiversity by planting things that are native, and beneficial to insects and wildlife of all types.  We need to be actively supporting our local ecosystems by considering all living things in our planting plans, by planting native plants that serve to provide for both wildlife and ourselves.  It starts with us, and our gardens.

goldfinchSo, let’s start with something easy.  Want to see some happy Goldfinches?  Plant some Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia).  The flowers are long-blooming, which will make us happy, they are attractive to pollinators, which will make the bees and butterflies happy, and when you let the flowers go to seed, you will see some very happy Goldfinches.  In addition, the rhizomatous root systems of many of these flowers work well to manage soil erosion.  They are also drought tolerant once established, very tough, thrive on neglect, and can put up with periods of wet, which makes them great rain garden plants (and that makes the Chesapeake Bay happy).  All but two of the varieties we offer in the Perennials Department are native to this area, and all of them are native to the U.S.

As for the Monarch, this butterfly is an example of how quickly a large population can decline in a very short period of time.  More than 90% of the population has vanished in the last 25 years due to habitat loss and pesticides.  What makes them particularly susceptible is that they are migratory.  Similar to birds, Monarchs are hard-wired on when, and where to go.  For them, migration is instinctual, and very inflexible.  They migrate south to the exact same location, along the same routes.

monarch-caterpillarIf their stops along the way have been changed in any way (i.e., developed, replanted, cleared, sprayed), or if their sole forest destination has been altered in any way (e.g., illegal logging, or the massive storm damage last year), then their chances of survival are very slim.  Like migratory birds, they won’t look around for a different, possibly better location to stop for food, or overwinter.

They will travel the same way, arrive at the exact destination and stay there, whether there is anywhere for them to roost or not.  In addition, Monarch caterpillars are able to survive feeding only on Milkweed plants (Asclepias), which makes planting it very important.  They breed here in the spring, or summer (the line dissects Maryland horizontally in half so it’s anybody’s guess), then they all leave in the fall like clockwork.  If there are no food sources for the caterpillars here, then there won’t be anything migrating in the future.

At the nursery, you’ll find two Milkweed options: Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).  The Butterfly Weed has a beautiful, incredibly bright orange cluster of flowers in late June, early July.  It enjoys lots of sun and dry, well drained soil.  It requires no attention, except that of adoration.  The Swamp Milkweed has a deep pink cluster of flowers (sometimes white) and prefers average-to-moist soil conditions and lots of sun, although it will tolerate a bit of shade.  Equally easy to grow, Swamp Milkweed blooms later in the summer and is no less beautiful.

You may not see Monarchs flooding your yard to lay eggs and forage for food after planting Milkweed, but after a few years, you may find that your yard has quietly become a breeding ground, or a cafeteria, and that makes it worthwhile.

As the poet, Gary Snyder said, “Nature is not a place you visit, it is home.”

by Constance Cleveland, Behnke’s Perennial Buyer


Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Hi. Black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars eat parsley. Last year I grew enough for them and me.

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