The Monarch Butterfly: YOU Can Help Them Now!

As a child growing up in Iowa in the 70’s and 80’s, monarch butterflies were common. So common that the notion that some day they would be on the verge of extinction would have been laughable. Today, it seems extinction of the monarch butterfly is not an unlikely scenario if current trends in their population decline continues.

But unlike other declining species, species that require hundreds of acres of pristine habitat for survival, the monarch can thrive in our backyards, parks, and other suburban areas with a minimal effort on our part. It’s as EASY as this:

1. Select a spot in your backyard, preferably a sunny spot.
2. Mark off an area in your yard for a butterfly garden.
3. Remove any sod and till the area with a garden tiller or hand cultivator enough to loosen the soil for planting of seeds and already potted plants.
4. In the new garden, plant milkweed species and nectar rich flowers.
5. Maintain the garden by watering and weeding as necessary.

It’s as simple as that!

In the Midwest, there are nearly a dozen different milkweed species. When I plant milkweed, I plant those native to Iowa: Common milkweed, butterflyweed, Sullivant’s milkweed, and swamp milkweed. I’ve collected seed in the wild from ditches and prairie remnants. Some species like Sullivant’s milkweed no longer exist in the area, so I’ve ordered seed online from a fine native plant nursery: “Prairie Moon Nursery”; other sources exist. Monarchs are not that picky and any of the milkweed species listed above are acceptable to them. Be patient though, because from seed, it may take a couple of years before milkweed plants reach mature size.

Planting other flowers with the milkweed is a good idea. I choose prairie plants native to Iowa: prairie blazing star, rough blazing star, pale purple coneflower, stiff goldenrod, native asters, and others. Planting these species will provide nectar sources and attract monarchs to your yard where they will find the milkweed you planted.

If enough people take these steps, the monarch might again be common.

In future posts, I will be sharing my efforts to help the monarch in my yard. I hope I have encouraged at least one person to join the effort to save the monarch butterfly. The world will not be as interesting without the monarch.

I leave you with this quote from Beebe:

“The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.” — William Beebe

It Doesn’t Take Much

In my nearly thirty years of habitat restoration efforts, one thing I’ve learned is that nature will respond to even the most miniscule of efforts to restore habitat.

My family’s 2.5 acre prairie restoration and small adjoining windbreak in North Central Iowa which started as a field of corn stubble in1988, has yielded results far exceeding what we expected. The habitat we’ve nurtured has attracted prairie birds like meadowlarks and dickcissels. Migrant prairie birds like American Golden plovers and upland sandpipers. A multitude of butterlies and dragonflies that I need to learn to identify. Early in our efforts, there was the signs of a badger. The Summer prairie teems with life.

In the windbreak we planted, the common yellowthroat sings from the honeysuckle bushes at the edge of the prairie. Brown thrashers lurk in the denser parts of the windbreak, and a male song sparrow bursts with song from gray dogwood.

Not bad for a former field of corn stubble. It doesn’t take much effort to bring nature back, the will to do so is the first step.

“If you build it, they will come.”

Life quickly returns to restored tallgrass prairie. Like the adage from the movie “Field of Dreams”- “If you build it, they will come.”

Case in point, the relatively miniscule four acre prairie my family and I restored in rural North Central Iowa starting in 1988. In 1988, this same plot consisted of a barren field of corn stubble. Historic records indicate that the land was tallgrass prairie; first broken around 1870. After a 118 year absence, the prairie “sons” returned home. Compass plant, pale purple coneflower, rattlesnake master, prairie blazing star, big bluestem and other prairie seed was sown. Plants unfamiliar to the 1980’s farmer. As foreign to him as surely the modern day multi-generational high yielding corn hybrids would have been to the Civil War veteran who first broke the prairie sod here so long ago.

Within two years, the first true prairie natives flowered after a centuries absence. Over twenty years later and with the help of the prairie’s fire ally, the restored prairie thrives. The prairie holds no grudges against man.

Compass plants tower over me at 8 feet. A rich tapestry of colorful flowers at every turn. Dickcissels, Western Meadowlarks, yellowthroat warblers, and song sparrows fill the restored prairie with their songs. Spring and Fall migrations have brought golden plovers and upland sandpipers. The summer prairie teems with insects and butterflies. The drone of bees fills the air. Cottontail rabbits and leopard frogs duck in the prairie grass for cover as I approach. Not bad for a former dismal, lifeless field of corn stubble.

“If you build it, they will come.”


The Great American Monoculture

The American suburban landscape is a sterile one, consisting of introduced bluegrass lawns with foundation plantings of showy European and Asiatic species. Without irrigation and constant applications of herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizer, the non-natives quickly wither. Why? Because they are not native here.

A doctoral thesis in psychology could be written to answer the question on WHY Americans see a sterile monoculture as attractive or interesting and why the American public as a whole fails to see the beauty of native prairie species. My theory is this: Neat tidy lawns are a status symbol of American “success” and a way we can symbolize our desire to “fit in” with our neighbors and their sterile monoculture lawns. Shaggy old prairie “weeds” don’t fit the bill.

I also believe the saturation in the American suburban landscape of sterile monoculture bluegrass lawns demonstrates a DISCONNECT between the American public and nature. People don’t want prairie in their yards because they don’t “connect” with it and other native landscapes. The hybrid, Asiatic day lily is an attractive substitute for them.

I argue opposite. The native patch of prairie restoration or plantings of native trees and shrubs in one’s yard forms a connection with the natural, native world we’ve lost. The beauty of the native prairie species outshines the non-native hybrid junk every time and evolved to survive the brutal weather of the American Midwest.