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A Battleship full of Butterfly Plants!

In our last thrilling episode, we explained that the dreaded milkweed seed bug was NOT an enemy of monarch butterfly breeding, but instead was an asset. This week it's a rundown of the best milkweeds and other butterfly plants for your garden, thanks to the legendary Ron Richael (pronounced "rile") of Pottstown PA, a member of Monarch Watch (a nationwide group of citizen scientists), official monarch tagger, and a wonderful example of how you can see these wonders of Nature up close, help care for their young and fuel them up for their seemingly impossible journey to overwintering sites in Mexico with just an intensive planting in a small backyard.

First, the basics. Eastern monarchs spend their summers in the US and Canada and then retreat back to their breeding grounds not far from Mexico City. There, they hibernate together in massive numbers in the trees, often completely camouflaging the entire tree with their famous colors. (It is during this time that natives and scientists look for tags that have been attached to a specific spot on a monarch's wing; these small discs reveal who tagged it, the date tagged and the city in which it was tagged. [I was honored to actually tag and release a few at Ron's home in Pottstown and can assure you that these butterflies have STURDY wings!)]

During their time in Mexico, the monarchs mate and then begin the journey North to their feeding grounds; the first group stopping down South, the second group in the Mid-Atlantic and the final (show-off) group flying all the way up to Canada, each and every female looking for a milkweed plant on which to deposit her eggs. The eggs hatch quickly, distinctive looking caterpillars emerge and start chowing down, gaining a little more invulnerability every day from naturally occurring toxic compounds in the milkweed, until it's obvious they would be a lousy meal. (Toxic to predators; not to these caterpillars.)

Then they spin a VERY distinctive (and beautiful) chrysalis, inside of which they will finish a complete metamorphosis and finally emerge as impressively colored adults. After a couple of hours drying their wings in the sun, they will flutter off, their need for milkweed over. From here on, they feed on pollen and nectar. This means that growing milkweed is only half of achieving a monarch friendly landscape.

But let's first discuss those milkweeds; here are three that are native to PA and the Mid-Atlantic states in general. Listeners and/or viewers in other regions should consult their State Extension Service and/or www.MonarchWatch.org for the best varieties for their region.

• "Common Milkweed"; big pink flowers. This species attracted the most monarchs by far in Ron's Garden.

• "Swamp milkweed"; smaller pink flowers, and despite its name, does not need to grow in a swamp. It simply prefers wet areas.

Asclepias Tuberosa; aka 'butterfly weed' and 'railroad Annie (or 'Aunty')' Named for its legendary ability to grow next to, around, and between railroad tracks. Like the early bluesmen, it followed the rails.

But man does not live by monarchs alone. Here are the OTHER host plants Ron grows in his Butterfly Back Yard:

* Paw Paw Trees; attract the ZEBRA SWALLOWTAIL

* Dutchman's Pipevine - PIPEVINE SWALLOWTAIL

* The popular herb Parsley - EASTERN BLACK SWALLOWTAIL

* Hops (yes, like in beer making and herbal medicine for sleep)- EASTERN COMMA (also known as 'the hop merchant')

* Hog Peanut (a string bean-like vine) - SILVER SPOTTED SKIPPER

* Fennel - Eastern Black Swallowtail

* Field Thistle - PAINTED LADY





* Rue (Graveolens; aka Herb of Grace) - GIANT SWALLOWTAIL

* Turtlehead (a very popular Native Plant) - BALTIMORE CHECKERSPOT


* Gas Plant aka burning bush, because, like the Biblical (and unrelated) plant, it produces so much of a volatile lemon-scented oil that it can actually burst into flame during relentless hot and sunny days without harming the plant. (Hummm; maybe we should revisit that Biblical angle. As we are told in the Book of Exodus: "Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up" (Exodus 3)). Anyway, it attracts the GIANT BLACK SWALLOWTAIL.

Ron's notes on this topic: "The host plants are more important than the nectar plants, as each butterfly depends on specific plants on which to lay its eggs. For example, if the Pipevine Swallowtail cannot find Dutchman's Pipevine to lay its eggs on, the butterfly could become extinct. Monarchs depend on milkweed. No milkweed no Monarchs! I hope you will join me in conserving butterflies. Plant host plants! Save the butterflies!"

Ah but those are just the essential elements of the butterfly nursery. Once grown to adulthood, monarchs (and other really cool butterflies) depend on plants that provide lots of high-quality pollen and nectar. Here's a partial list of Ron's best plants for the adults:

Tithonia (Mexican sunflower)

Verbena bonariensis

Buddleia (butterfly bush)

• Blue Mist (Conoclinium coelestinum)

• Common Milkweed

• Swamp Milkweed

• Field Thistle

• 'State Fair Mix' Zinnia

• Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

• Late Flowering Boneset

• Purple Coneflower

• And finally, Mountain Mint; the winner by a wide margin in Ron's pocket garden.

Now, a closing note from me. First, use no pesticides or you'll wind up killing the creatures you're trying to help. And two, do not attract birds to your butterfly habitat! Butterflies are a favorite food of many birds, so take those seed feeders down!

Another closing note from me. On the other side of the Rockies exists the Western Monarch, which has a different travel habit. Unfortunately, the relentless wildfires in the West have devastated their populations and made migration difficult to impossible. (Ron: "It's hard to fly through hundreds of miles of flames".)

At what point does climate change make it difficult to impossible for any of us to survive? As the World's Greatest Journalist, Edward R. Murrow, would end his broadcasts, "good night and good luck".

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