By mid-September, Marylanders welcome an influx of orange-and-black Super Monarch butterflies. The heartiest generation of North American Monarchs, young Super Monarchs depart Canada around late August every year and stop in Maryland around mid-September.
But they won’t stay long. They need to be back at their Mexican roosting digs in time for winter. In March, a new generation of Monarchs will start their journey from the Oyamel fir forests of Mexico back to Southern Canada. They’ll return to Maryland in June.
The only migratory species of butterflies, Monarchs can fly between 50 and 100 miles per day and as far as 3,000 miles in eight to 10 weeks. In the course of their journey, three or four generations of Monarchs will come and go. The fourth generation of butterflies, which live as long as six to eight months, are strong enough to make the entire pilgrimage from Canada to Mexico. These are known as Super Monarchs.
In order to maintain their “super-powers,” Super Monarchs rely on the food and fuel they receive from host milkweed and nectar-rich plants. Gardeners can help the Monarchs by including these plants in their gardens.
Host plants provide a place for caterpillars to lay their eggs. Approximately 10 to 14 days later, larva emerge from the eggs and are nourished by the host plant’s leaves.
Host plants include Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). These plants are poisonous and provide Monarchs protection against predators.
Common milkweed and butterfly weed grow naturally along dry fields and roadsides while swamp milkweed, as the name implies, is best suited for fresh and non-tidal marshes, shrub swamps, woods and shores. These perennials can be purchased as transplants or as seeds from local nurseries.
After caterpillars become butterflies, three types of nectar-rich plants provide the nourishment they require to complete their long and strenuous migration paths:
- Annuals such as Mexican Sunflowers, Cosmos , Lantana, Allysum and Zinnia (many varieties)
- Native perennials such as Garden Phlox (phlox paniculata); Common sneezeweed (Helenium Autumnale); Goldenrod (Solidago Nemoralis or Rugose); New England Aster (Aster Novae-angiae) and Joe-Pye weed (many species of Eupatorium)
- Nectar-rich flowering shrubs such as Panicule Hydrangea (Hydrangea Paniculata); sweet pepperbush (Clethra Alnifolia) and Butterfly Bush (Buddleia Davidii)
Note: Though the Butterfly Bush has lovely flowers and attracts butterflies, it is on Maryland’s invasive plant list. Since the plant is propagated by seed, after flowering be sure to remove its head to prevent invasive spread of the shrub.
Rebecca Brown began her career as a horticulturalist more than 25 years ago and studied at the New York Botanical Gardens. She has been a University of Maryland, Baltimore County master gardener for five years and is a backyard beekeeper.
Norman Cohen is a retired chemist. He has been gardening for 38 years and has been a University of Maryland, Baltimore County master gardener for 10 years. Cohen also provides gardening education to the public at local farmers markets.
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