Help our Mighty Monarchs Make A Comeback!

23 Jun

GOOD NEWS DEAR GARDENERS! Things are looking a bit brighter for Monarch Butterflies this year! The latest count of Monarchs overwintering in Mexico increased to 150 million this year over last year’s 42 million. And the latest report from the Xerces Society Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count is showing more positive indicators – 15 sites (out of 187), which have been continuously monitored since the late 1990’s, show Monarchs turning up in numbers unseen for decades! What’s more, this past year they were seen overwintering in brand new sites such as Berkeley’s Aquatic Park and Muir Woods in Marin County.

Now, this is pretty great news for us gardeners, and so many of us who care about the myriad threats to our pollinator friends, especially our iconic Monarch Butterfly.


Monarchs overwintering near Pacific Grove, CA. Photo courtesy Agunther

But as most of you know, there is still a long way to go to ensure a healthy population of Monarchs. Here are some sobering numbers: Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count volunteers counted a total of 1.2 million butterflies in the late 90’s. This year’s count was 271,924. 

We are so grateful to the many folks putting so much effort into studying and supporting our Monarchs and other pollinators and sharing their information with us.

So now, let me introduce you to a lady I am in awe of. Local hero and pollinator powerhouse Tora Rocha, Oakland Public Works Park Supervisor, who is responsible for single-handedly supervising over 75 parks and public spaces in Oakland. But we know her as the guardian goddess of downtown Oakland’s The Gardens at Lake Merritt. Promoting the idea that people – especially gardeners – “should become hands-on stewards of their local ecosystems”, Tora practices what she preaches.


Pollinator powerhouse Tora Rocha.

Unlike anyone or anything I’ve seen in the world of Monarch research, Tora is operating a multi-faceted Monarch lab. Using the gardens as a testing ground, she is constantly trialing which plants are helpful to Monarchs and other butterflies. In her daily work in the garden she can easily see which plants are the most popular for nectar sipping and for egg laying, sharing her sometimes surprising info with us.


What’s more, Tora is also helping increase butterfly survival rates. Since only one out of 300 eggs will survive and transform into adult caterpillars, Tora and her small but mighty crew go about the garden collecting butterfly eggs and caterpillars (as well as taking in those brought in by local gardeners), raising them in butterfly nurseries to protect them from predators and diseases. The first year they started this project, they raised and released 30 Monarchs, the second year 300 and in 2015, 900. So far in 2016, they’ve raised and released over 2000 Monarchs! There were so many caterpillars, she had to recruit families, friends and volunteers to take them home to feed, nurture, watch and wait while they went through the positively miraculous stages of metamorphosis – shape shifting magically from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Many of these wonderful folks bring their butterflies back to Tora, to release back into the garden.

Here is a link to our friend Tansy Mattingly’s kitchen table video of this incredible process.


Here in California, Western Monarchs do not travel to Mexico but overwinter in over 200 groves along the California coast. In earliest Spring, they start to fly – madly mating,  laying eggs and dispersing across California and western states searching for Milkweed as it appears.


Spring and Fall Monarch Migration. Graphic courtesy Xerces Society.

Milkweed, of course, or Asclepias species is the only plant on which Monarchs will lay their eggs. After 3-5 days, out pops a little caterpillar

Immediately, the tiny caterpillar becomes a voracious eating machine, the leaves of Milkweed foliage imparting important cardenolide toxins. By the time they are adult butterflies, this accumulation of toxins makes them poisonous and bad tasting to birds. Growing very fast, the caterpillar will increase 3000 times its size in the next 14-18 days! This would be like a human baby growing into a blue whale in that amount of time! After 18 days, the caterpillar starts shedding its outer skin or exoskeleton to reveal the stunningly beautiful chrysalis inside.

After 3 or 4 generations, the last generation or “Super Monarchs” begin arriving in our gardens in September to overwinter and cluster in a state of suspended reproduction or “sexual diapause”. Come February the cycle starts once again.

As “Big Ag” and its herbicides and urban/suburban sprawl destroy habitat and Milkweed feeding grounds, what can we home gardeners do to be better “stewards of our little garden eco-systems” as Tora asks? How can we support our pollinator friends especially since we’ve reached the point where butterflies passing through urban areas are almost entirely dependent on city gardens?


Tora’s favorite Milkweeds in order of beauty and pollinator action are:

Asclepias speciosa ‘Davis’, Asclepias speciosa, Asclepias fascicularis, Asclepias physocarpa and Asclepias curassavica.


Superstar Asclepias speciosa ‘Davis’

Plant in groups or even in masses. Planting in groups of 5 or more host or nectar plants is far more effective for attracting Monarchs to your garden than singles of each variety. So if you have a small garden you might just choose one Milkweed variety and plant it in abundance. The same goes for nectar plants ­­– choose just a handful of Monarch favorites and plant a swath of them.

Monarchs need NECTAR PLANTS, too! You must have nectar plants as well as host Milkweed in your garden so Monarchs will have a source of nutrition for their long travels. In fact, Tora recommends planting an equal number of host plants and nectar plants with at least one variety blooming at all times.

Here are Tora’s favorites:

  • Verbena lilacina ‘De La Mina’ – Tora’s # 1 favorite Spring blooming California native nectar plant – especially since its hardy to USDA zone 7 and blooms year around in mild climates. Remember, Monarchs are searching out nectar sources in September and October in much of California – just when many folks are cutting back plants and cleaning up their gardens. Tora recommends leaving a little “Monarch Corner” with some of their favorite treats. Tora has noticed that some Monarchs stay year-round in her gardens and has even observed butterflies nectaring in December on days when the temperatures go above 70 degrees.


    Verbena lilacina ‘De La Mina’, pollinator magnet and Monarch favorite.

  • Anisodontea sp. ‘Strybing Beauty’ is a beautiful shrub in the Mallow family. It’s easy, fast-growing and blooms its heart out year-round in coastal California.


    Anisodontea sp. ‘Strybing Beauty’.

  • Tagetes lemonii Blooms off and on for most of the year, peaking in Fall to mid-Winter. Deer resistant, too!

14 Responses to “Help our Mighty Monarchs Make A Comeback!”

  1. Berkeley Garden Coach June 23, 2016 at 5:56 pm #

    Reblogged this on Berkeley Garden Coach and commented:
    Worth a read – good news about Monarch butterflies!

  2. Cathy June 26, 2016 at 10:18 am #

    I’m in the Seattle area , would it be helpful to grow some milkWeed in my garden ? I have 2 beehives . And try to help all pollinators
    I have room for a large patch

    • anniesannuals June 27, 2016 at 10:15 am #

      Yes! Plant Milkweed! Monarchs migrate between Vancouver, BC and their overwintering grounds on the California coast and they feed and lay eggs all along the way.

  3. Sandra June 26, 2016 at 6:02 pm #

    That was amazing! What was happening when some part of the caterpillar dropped to the table – boom!??

    • anniesannuals June 27, 2016 at 10:19 am #

      That is the caterpillar shedding its skin for the last time as it passes from the larval (caterpillar) stage to the pupa (chrysalis) stage of metamorphosis! Incredible!

  4. Joetta June 27, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

    Do you think that people who use chemicals in their gardens that could be harmful to butterflies should actually be discouraged from plants that attract them?

    • anniesannuals July 8, 2016 at 9:19 am #

      We urge gardeners NOT to use harmful pesticides in their gardens when there are so many natural alternatives.

  5. Stevanne Auerbach May 4, 2017 at 8:54 pm #


  6. Lisa Joyce June 23, 2017 at 10:39 am #

    Great video. I notice that the plant list is for the Northeastern US; is there one for the west or Northern California?

    • anniesannuals June 26, 2017 at 11:03 am #

      hi lisa: many of the plants on that list, grow just as well here in the west. however, if you want a plant list specifically geared toward CA, or another region, check out Xerces Society’s regional plant lists.

  7. Dezi June 24, 2017 at 6:04 am #

    No success with milkweed . . . yet. Snails, slugs, salt spray. Any ideas for indestructible s that may survive me and living above Tillamook Bay?

    • anniesannuals June 26, 2017 at 10:50 am #

      hi dezi – milkweed may not be in the cards for you with salt spray being an issue. but there are lots of tough, hardy butterfly nectar plants that are salt-spray tolerant for you to consider. try these!

      you might also consider using a non-toxic snail bait like sluggo to get your plants established before the little buggers devour them.

      good luck!

  8. Cindy June 25, 2017 at 7:39 am #

    Hi there. I live in michigan and was wondering what plants u suggest to
    Plant here for the butterflies/monarchs? Im in saving them so snything u could suggest would be welcome. Thanks a million. Cindy.

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