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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog

A Better Choice

We have been hearing about how Monarch Butterflies are in trouble. The question is "what to do to help the Monarch's?" The common answer has been to plant more milkweed, but is this the best advice to give? Is the answer to the Monarch question much more complicated than just planting more milkweed?

Monarch Butterflies are amazing creatures. I cannot think of any other creature that begins a journey in one place and finds its way to a place that it has never been. Monarchs, from much of North America, spend the winter months in the highlands in southern Mexico. They make this journey from the northern part of North America, flying all the way down to Mexico.

The conservation of Monarch Butterflies is a complicated question. One of the biggest influences on populations has been the loss of habitat, which is where the common practice of planting milkweed has developed. However, this is only one piece to the puzzle and not all Milkweed is created equal (at least not in Illinois and the Midwest). One Milkweed in particular in question is the "Tropical Milkweed." If you have read some of my other writings, you know that I am a huge fan of native plants. The benefits of native plants are numerous, but this is not going to be about native plants and their benefits.

Tropical Milkweed is a popular choice for many gardeners because of its bright color, long bloom time and ease of care. Tropical Milkweed, however, is not native to any part of the US and some recent research is suggesting that there are some potential negative effects on Monarch Butterflies in the Midwest. One report suggests that the longer bloom time has had some effect on delaying the start of Monarch migration. In addition, there are also suggestions that the use of Tropical Milkweed in the Southern US is also causing problems. It is creating winter breeding habitats in the mild winters of southern Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and in Florida. The butterflies that overwintered in the US were five times more likely to have a very serious, debilitating infection known as OE.

With this in mind, there is a much better choice when looking to plant milkweed. Native species are going to be a much better choice. However, they are a little more difficult to find it is becoming more common and easier to find. When you are thinking about adding Milkweed to your yard, or helping monarchs, reach for a native species before you reach for Tropical Milkweed.

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