2013/2014 Winter in California~
Hundreds of orange wings take flight in the afternoon sunshine, cruising on a warm breeze~ Monarchs are leaving the shade of tall eucalyptus trees in the groves where they roost. There are a handful of overwintering spots for Monarchs in the Central Coast of California, from Pismo Beach north to Santa Cruz. Unlike their east coast cousins, these monarchs come down from Canada and the Pacific Northwest to California’s Central Coast to overwinter instead of traveling to Mexico proper. The California Flyway extends from Canada down to Baja.
Although East Coast and West Coast Monarchs are of the same species, the Milkweed to which they’ve become accustomed is quite different. They have become adapted to different local species of Milkweed, Asclepias. You cannot plant the same species of Milkweed for the Monarchs of the West Coast as for those East of the Rockies.
It is important to plant Milkweed for the Monarchs, as it is their host plant. Females will be looking for Milkweed to lay their eggs (even right now) on their return north from their overwintering grounds. But they will need Asclepias that is local to the region. Local species will bloom at the right time for the Monarchs to leave their roosts.
The alkaloids associated with specific milkweeds give the monarch and other butterflies that feed on it protection from predators. Alkaloids from the wrong milkweed (South American, Mexican, etc.) can expose the butterflies to predators. If the monarch or other butterfly has not evolved with the milkweed they may have limited tolerance for the particular alkaloid or latex of the plant species. If you live in the Midwest, you can plant Mexican species (Asclepias mexicana) or Asclepias tuberosa, but don’t plant our species.
Wherever you live in this country, you can plant Milkweed for Monarchs. This is a great list of milkweed species by region. Find yours here: http://monarchjointventure.org/images/uploads/documents/Milkweed-info-sheet.pdf
If you are lucky enough to travel to California in the wintertime, be sure to put the Central Coast Monarch Sanctuaries on your to-see list! Orange wings begin to fill the air late October, early November, as Monarchs fly in from points north and from inland areas. By February, they will have left the groves, the females anxious to deposit their eggs on Milkweed plants, fulfilling their life cycle. Here are some of the best CA Coastal groves to look for from north to south (www.parks.ca.gov)
- Natural Bridges State Park, Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz
- Monarch Grove Sanctuary, Lighthouse Ave, Pacific Grove
- Andrew Molera State Park, Big Sur, 30 miles south of Pacific Grove
- Butterfly Grove, Coast Hwy 1, Pismo Beach
According to the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, the number of West Coast Monarchs are holding steady (though not nearly what they used to be in the 1990’s). The Monarch Grove Sanctuary (2.5 acres) in Pacific Grove, CA reported 13,000 Monarchs there this 2013/2014 season.
I have visited this overwintering site and can tell you that the monarch grove is indeed magical. It has just the right amount of sun & shade, monarch-friendly breezes, moisture, tall pines & eucalyptus (their favorite roosting tree), as well as open meadows of native plants & grasses. It is amazing how they find this place, flying as high as 10,000 ft to land in this grove.
On my visit to Pacific Grove, Monarchs would flit past my face as I walked from my car to the sanctuary. They were everywhere for blocks around, not sticking to their assigned refuge. They seemed to know that in wintertime, they own this town! The citizens of this butterfly-friendly town even have signs posted warning of heavy fines for anyone caught interfering with the monarchs or their grounds! Yay!
Now, if you are lucky enough to have a garden in California, you will want to add Milkweed to your garden. Find a source of local native milkweed plants and plan to get them as soon as they are old enough for transplant. It may be a little too early to find milkweed plants in most native plant nurseries, as they are still growing.
There are many varieties of milkweed in California. You want to find the ones that are right for your region and growing conditions:
Mexican Whorled Milkweed (Dry climates); Showy Milkweed (Savannahs and prairies); Desert Milkweed (Desert regions); California Milkweed (Grassy areas); Heartleaf Milkweed (Rocky slopes incl Coastal); Woolly Milkweed (Dry deserts and plains)
When you Garden for Monarchs, you are helping restore some of the habitat these butterflies have lost to development and pesticides. Gardening for Monarchs means being mindful of a healthy environment that includes using NO pesticides. Watching these amazing orange-winged creatures in your garden is YOUR reward.
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