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desert gardening basics
a monarch garden
A Monarch Garden
January, 2012, Page 59
Photo by Richard Maack
A male monarch can be identified by the two black dots on the lower wing. On chilly days, monarchs open their wings facing the sun to help them stay warm.
Gail and Bob Morris’ Arizona Landscape Sustains Butterflies on Their Long Migration
Each spring and fall, Gail and Bob Morris anticipate the arrival of graceful orange-and-black monarch butterflies to their yard. Migrating between summer and winter territories, these extraordinary creatures are attracted to the couple’s butterfly habitat—called a Monarch Waystation—which they created in their yard to sustain the insects along their journey.
Monarch butterflies perform a remarkable feat, flying up to 3,000 miles between mild winter roosting spots in Mexico and California and summer sojourns as far north as Canada. Around Valentine’s Day, monarchs mate in Mexico, then head north, arriving in Maricopa County in March through early April, says Gail. As a volunteer Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist, she records sightings in her yard and from other local butterfly enthusiasts.
“Typically, Valley watchers don’t spy large numbers of monarchs on the spring migration, perhaps because prevailing winds carry the butterflies elsewhere,” she speculates. However, when monarchs head south on their return flight, greater numbers appear. “It’s like any long race. A few take off fast and arrive early in September. Then the bulk show up during a two-week stretch from late September to early October,” she says. “Others straggle in as late as Thanksgiving.”
Those unable to make it to their winter grounds may remain in local landscapes that offer habitats, providing homeowners with the opportunity to observe all life stages of this intriguing insect.
lant Milkweed and They Will Come
When the Morrises moved into their home in Chandler, Arizona, their small backyard contained grass, three bougainvillea vines and one tree, offering little that would attract or sustain wildlife. In 2006, they redesigned the space for butterflies (birds like it, too), guided by their experiences when traveling around the country following monarch migrations.
“We’ve watched monarchs in California, Kansas and Texas, and it’s really enjoyable to discover habitats where people haven’t noticed them before,” remarks Bob. The couple realized that permanent water sources in the wild create veritable fountains of life, so they added a stream and butterfly seep, as well as larval and nectar plants to their yard during renovation.
Monarchs prefer milkweed plants from the Asclepias genus. “Arizona desert gardeners are fortunate that we have native milkweeds that are excellent landscape plants,” says Gail. Mix and match as few as 10 of these, and butterflies will turn your yard into a busy landing strip. (See Milkweeds for Desert Landscapes.)
When purchasing larval plants such as passion vine and milkweed, check with the nursery to be sure they have not been sprayed with pesticides. Some nurseries spray to avoid ragged foliage that can result from tiny chewing “worms,” which actually are young caterpillars. The larvae will eventually grow fat, pupate and transform into winged adults. On the other hand, knowledgeable butterfly gardeners snap up plants that are covered with tiny caterpillars, delighted to take them home.
Such plant damage is due to a lack of options for butterflies, notes Gail. In an area with numerous larval plants, a butterfly can lay one egg per plant; but if plants are scarce, adults “dump” eggs, depositing 20 to 30 on one plant. “Dumping is a desperation maneuver to lay as many as they can when they find a host plant,” she explains. “When they hatch, caterpillars may chew these plants to shreds, but established milkweeds bounce back quickly, in my experience.”
She concludes: “Monarchs add serenity, beauty and joy to our lives.They are at a critical phase, with so much habitat along their migration route being fragmented by development. I encourage everyone to plant a few milkweeds in their yard to help save this incredible natural phenomenon.”
Life Stages of a Monarch
Monarchs lay one egg at a time, often on the underside of a leaf.
Caterpillars may strip foliage off tropical milkweeds, but plants rebound.
3. Early Chrysalis
Gail and Bob Morris suspend jewel-like pupating monarchs indoors with dental floss to protect them from predators. More than 100 butterflies emerged from chrysalides and flew away from the Morrises’ garden last year.
4. Late Chrysalis
About 24 hours before the butterfly emerges, the chrysalis turns clear and the future adult is visible.
Wrinkled wings indicate this male has just emerged. He hangs from the shell of the chrysalis for about four hours while pumping fluids through his body to expand and harden the wings before flight, explains Bob Morris.
Bring Back the Monarch
Monarch butterfly populations are in decline due to habitat destruction and widespread herbicide use, according to Monarch Watch, a nonprofit educational outreach program. The organization encourages the creation of Monarch Waystations—such as the one above at the home of Gail and Bob Morris—with plants that provide for migrating butterflies. Similar to the National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat program, Monarch Waystations can be incorporated in home and school gardens, parks and commercial landscapes. Visit
Clockwise from top left: A year-round water source attracts migrating butterflies (and birds) to backyard gardens (top left & right). • A monarch butterfly feeds on a desert milkweed plant. • Yellow bells, lantana, desert lavender and woolly butterfly bush provide nectar for butterflies.
Flat sandy area with a constant water source where male butterflies congregate in “puddle parties” to absorb essential salts.
Flowering species that adult butterflies feed on for fuel, such as lantana and Maximilian sunflower.
Butterflies lay eggs on so-called “host” plants, including milkweeds and passion vines. As soon as they hatch, caterpillars begin to eat these plants.
Milkweeds for Desert Landscapes
Narrowleaf (or Arizona) milkweed
Found naturally only in Arizona. Needs afternoon shade. Produces white blooms in spring and fall.
Tropical milkweed or bloodflower (
Non-native that requires afternoon shade and cold protection. Orange-and-yellow flower clusters bloom almost year-round.
Desert milkweed (
Native that is a favorite of monarchs. Creamy blooms appear spring to fall.
Pineleaf milkweed (
Native that performs best with afternoon shade. Puts out white flowers spring through fall.
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