Endangered & beloved

Features - Perennials

Native plants provide habitat and nourishment for the endangered and beloved monarch.

October 28, 2022

Monarch butterfly on goldenrod
Photo © Brian Lasenby | Adobe Stock

Densely covered in scales with bright patterned orange and black wings, they take off for the remarkable long-distance migration around 2,700 miles, a journey that some will not survive.

The migratory monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus ssp. Plexippus) is classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Monarch butterfly numbers have been declining since the early 1990s with weather patterns, habitat destruction and pesticides being the main factors contributing to their decline, explains Karen Oberhauser, an American conservation biologist who specializes in monarch butterflies.

“The most important thing people can do is provide habitat for them,” says Oberhauser. “That's where the nurseries and growers come in, is providing the raw material for that habitat, and the good thing about monarchs is that they will find a garden. … If you plant it, they will come.”

During their migration from the U.S. to Mexico, monarchs must visit hundreds of flowers to get nectar for their journey. With each year, habitat loss makes finding flowers increasingly difficult. To support monarchs and all pollinators, it is important for growers to grow a variety of native plants that bloom during spring, summer and fall.

Below is a list of native plants, by region, that will support pollinators during spring, summer and fall. For a more detailed list, please visit www.pollinator.org/gardencards.

Trees are important hosts for butterflies, moths and skippers.
Photo © Jeanne | Adobe Stock

Northeast region

  • Spring: Lupinus perennis (wild lupine)
  • Summer: Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (narrowleaf mountain mint)
  • Fall: Chelone glabra (white turtlehead)

Northwest region

  • Spring: Achillea millefolium (common yarrow)
  • Summer: Eutrochium fistulosum (Joe Pye weed)
  • Fall: Rudbeckia occidentalis (Western coneflower)

Intermountain region

  • Spring: Achillea millefolium (common yarrow)
  • Summer: Asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed)
  • Fall: Gaillardia aristata (blanket flower)

Great Plains region

  • Spring: Zizia aurea (golden alexanders)
  • Summer: Dalea purpurea (purple prairie clover)
  • Fall: Liatris punctata (dotted blazing star)

Midwest region

  • Spring: Baptisia spp. (wild indigo)
  • Summer: Ratibida pinnata (yellow coneflower)
  • Fall: Symphyotrichum novae- angliae (New England aster)

Southeast region

  • Spring: Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot)
  • Summer: Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan)
  • Fall: Conoclinium coelestinum (blue mistflower)

Southwest region

  • Spring: Penstemon palmeri (Palmer’s penstemon)
  • Summer: Penstemon eatonii (firecracker beardstongue)
  • Fall: Ericameria spp. (rabbitbrush)

Texas region

  • Spring: Penstemon cobaea (cobaea beardtongue)
  • Summer: Lantana urticoides (Texas lantana)
  • Fall: Ageratina havanensis (shrubby boneset)
Photo © Rod Gardner | Adobe Stock

“Growers should want to plant more plants because there’s a great opportunity here to revegetate our home landscapes, corporate landscapes, farm landscapes and our public landscapes to provide the right plant species to actually help all different types of nature to survive,” CEO/owner of North Creek Nurseries and co-owner of American Beauties Native Plants Steve Castorani says.

Growers who don’t grow flowering plants can still be a part of the movement and support pollinators by growing oak trees. Castorani emphasizes the importance of planting oak trees because it’s the number one genus for hosting about 600 different types of butterflies, moths and skippers to produce, gather and feed their young. More information about the importance of oak trees can be found in Doug Tallamy’s book, The Nature of Oaks, where he reveals how oaks support more life forms and interactions than any other tree genus in North America.

Monarchs begin their migration to Mexico from September to October, and they will arrive at their overwintering site, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, in November. In the spring, they are ready to migrate back to the U.S., so they can lay their eggs on different native species of milkweed.

“Growers have to be aware that they should not apply neonicotinoids pesticides to those plants because as a larval food source, the caterpillars will eat Asclepias that was tainted with a chemical and it basically kills them,” Castorani says.

Asclepias, commonly known as milkweed, is a plant genus that is specific to Monarchs. It’s the only genus on which females will lay their eggs and the caterpillars will eat. “There has been a lot of public support for planting more Asclepius, selling more of it in the market and working with farmers, natural lands and homeowners,” Castorani says. “From the larval food perspective, [Asclepias] is what you must grow, so there’s a lot of demand in the marketplace. There’s a lot of consumer demand, and I don’t know that that consumer demand is met yet.”

“We’ve sold currently somewhere around 2,000 [milkweed] plants,” says Bill Jones, president of Carolina Native Nursery. “Our sales have been up 30% annually for the past three years. We feel that the recognition of the advantage of native plants is becoming more and more mainstream on a daily basis.”

Carolina Native Nursery is known for growing native azaleas and rhododendron from seed, and they specialize in growing native shrubs, perennials, ferns and grasses. They currently grow over 200 different species and have a large pollinator garden made of 80 different native perennials, plus grasses and shrubs. As a nursery whose mission is to “save the earth, one plant at a time,” they don’t use neonicotinoids or anything “that would be harmful to caterpillars and other pollinators on their plants.”

“When people come to garden centers, they’re expecting to find whole sections in garden centers specifically for native plants and to have people in garden centers that can speak about those plants,” Jones says. “That’s what we see. We’re not a garden center, but we have retail here because people come here frustrated after they went to garden centers and couldn’t find native plants. We entertained a carload of ladies from New Jersey that drove all the way down here to fill their Suburban with native plants because they couldn’t get them locally.”

North Creek Nurseries is primarily a propagation nursery, and they have seen an increase in growers seeking more native plants, specifically ones that benefit pollinators. North Creek grows seven varieties of milkweed: Asclepias curassavica (bloodflower, scarlet milkweed), A. incarnata (swamp milkweed), A. incarnata ‘Cinderella’ (swamp milkweed), A. incarnata ‘Ice Ballet’, A. syriaca (common milkweed), A. tuberosa (butterfly milkweed, butterfly weed) and A. verticillata (horsetail milkweed, whorled milkweed). In 2021 they produced and sold around 198,000 milkweed plants. They expect to do the same or more by the end of 2022.

“[Asclepias] is collateral damage when ditches are cleaned, highways are put in, farming practices take precedent or wetlands are drained,” Castorani says. “We, as landowners, can control this somewhat, but we have to make a concerted effort as a large population of people to mitigate those practices, and one of those is to actually plant more Asclepias and plant more of other native plants that offer pollen and nectar for not just monarchs, but all types of pollinators. … The horticulture industry has an opportunity, call it an obligation because we grow plants, and we have the ability to repopulate areas that have been disturbed or that can be relandscaped with native plants and benefit wildlife.”