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Milkweeds and Monarchs: A Crucial Connection

Milkweeds and Monarchs: A Crucial Connection

Planting in the butterfly garden
November 13, 2015

As an organization long concerned with art and environment the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art campus landscape has always displayed plant species which are native to this region – both because much of the artwork created in the Brandywine Valley portrayed these native species, and because of the ecological fitness these species provide. 

The Truth in the Landscape

When those earliest painters were working in Chadds Ford the landscapes they depicted were largely made up of native species and not by so many of the aggressive non-native species that have become so very common today that most folks think they’ve always been here.  The landscape looked very different then, and it was different on an ecological level, too.  Over many thousands of years the native species of any region co-evolve within the regional soil types, the seasonal patterns of rainfall, flooding, humidity and temperature extremes, and they also co-evolve with the regional wildlife – each [plants & animals] becoming co-dependent upon the other in the process.  As we have altered our landscapes we’ve adjusted the ability of plants and creatures to rely on one another in the way that they evolved to.

Monarch. Photo by Mark Gormel
With the Milkweeds Go the Monarchs

​Case in point is one of North America’s most iconic representations of natural beauty – the Monarch Butterfly.  The monarch is entirely dependent on a single type of plant: milkweed.  There are numerous types of milkweeds, but milkweed plants are the only food source that immature monarchs, caterpillars, can feed upon and grow upon.  A female monarch butterfly seeks out milkweed species upon which to lay her eggs.  The resulting caterpillars eat the leaves and flowers of that milkweed plant.  When those caterpillars become large enough to metamorphose into adults they will no longer eat plant tissue but will instead sip nectar out of the flowers of many different types of plants, including those of milkweeds.  Milkweed plants are essential for the survival of monarchs – no other plant species works.  Naturally occurring populations of milkweed plants have become scarce and harder and harder for female monarchs to find.  Because of this, and other factors, the overall number of monarchs is presently at an alarmingly low level – possibly down by as much as 90% of previous population levels!

For much more info on the life and plight of the monarch see both of these links:

Caterpillar. Photo by Mark Gormel
How We’re Fighting for the Monarchs

Recently, in a space behind our Membership and Development Offices, directly north of our Station Way Road entrance to the campus, we’ve begun phase one of a planting effort specifically intended to support and draw further attention to the monarch, a project we’re calling the Monarch Migration Station.  Within this space we’ll plant high densities of milkweed species, first targeting those that were quite common in our area (Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweek; Asclepias tuberosa, Butterflyweed; and Asclepias syriaca, Common Milkweed) and then later experiment with species that historically have been here in smaller numbers.  We’ll also plant other species that are terrific nectar sources for monarchs, thereby providing food for both young and old [caterpillars and adults] and include a selection of warm season grasses in order to develop better habitat structure and provide an attractive winter presence.

This is Just the Beginning

The milkweeds and grasses we planted in Phase 1 have traveled full circle in our organization.  Our garden volunteers collected and cleaned the seeds of milkweeds and grasses growing in our Chadds Ford gardens and meadows; those seeds were grown into plants by our staff at the Penguin Court Greenhouse. 

Planting in the butterfly garden
Planting in the butterfly garden

Small But Mighty and 700 Strong

Nearly seven hundred plants went into the ground in Phase 1.  Despite the heat and drought the plants are growing well due to a temporary irrigation system which will be removed next year.  After this season none of those plants will require supplemental irrigation from us – they’ll simply keep on doing what native plants have been doing for so many thousands of years: growing, flowering, looking beautiful, and feeding all those who live in our landscape as well as those who derive meaning and inspiration from it.

Learn more about native plants and our native plant seed program which can help you grow a garden perfect for this area.