Monarch on Butterflyweed flower

Monarchs and milkweed: What you need to know

Monarch on Butterflyweed flower
Milkweed is critical food for Monarch larva. Photo by John Flannery

The Monarch butterfly’s demise has captured Americans’ attention, and people want to help. But are they doing the best thing for the butterflies? In some cases, maybe not.

To educate and guide those who want to support Monarch butterflies, the Florida Wildflower Foundation has joined with the Florida Museum of Natural History on a publication that guides consumers.

So what’s the problem? Habitat loss, wide use of herbicides and genetically modified crops, and frequent roadside mowing have decreased the occurrence of milkweeds (Asclepias species), the Monarch’s primary host plant. In addition, a protozoan parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) can infect adult butterflies, which can transfer the infection to milkweed plants where it infects Monarch caterpillars.

Milkweed in landscapes

Because our love for the iconic butterfly has led to enormous interest in including milkweed in home landscapes, the publication emphasizes the importance of using Florida’s native species. Though our state has 21 native milkweed species, it can be challenging to find a local nursery that carries them. Only three native species are commonly available from native nurseries, and demand outstrips supply. Some gardeners may think they’re doing the right thing by purchasing Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), a non-native plant available at many big-box stores and large retail nurseries. Unfortunately, some plants may unintentionally harm Monarch larvae, because many of the plants are treated with systemic insecticides that can kill caterpillars or stunt their growth.

The Monarchs & Milkweed educational handout is available via download from the Florida Wildflower Foundation website. To order copies for a meeting or event, click to fill out a publication request form.

The publication was produced with proceeds from the sale of the State Wildflower license plate.

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