Do you want to learn how to attract monarch butterflies to your yard? Read on for how best to set up a butterfly friendly garden that caters to these iconic orange and black beauties.
Monarch butterflies begin a long northward migration every spring from their wintering grounds in Mexico. As they head North they are looking for one thing … milkweed (the asclepias family of plants).
Known as host plants, the female Monarch deposits her eggs solely on milkweed plants and the tiny caterpillars that emerge feed upon the milkweed, exclusively. When you plant milkweed in your garden, it’s akin to rolling out a welcome mat for these butterflies!
Monarch Life Cycle
The Monarch Butterfly life cycle has fascinated me since I was a kid and discovered a colorful Monarch caterpillar on the playground. Here’s a quick rundown …
The Monarch Life Cycle (technically called metamorphosis) is the series of developmental stages that insects go through to become adults. Butterflies and moths have four stages of life: egg, larva (the caterpillar stage), pupa (the chrysalis phase in a butterfly’s development), and adult.
It takes a Monarch butterfly just 28 to 32 days to complete its life cycle. Light, temperature, and humidity all play an important role in determining how long it will take a Monarch to complete its life cycle. Developing monarchs prefer a temp of 70 to 80 degrees, humidity of 60% to 70%, and normal summer daylight/night patterns.
Monarch females lay their eggs on milkweed, the only plant monarch caterpillars can eat. The eggs are laid singly and generally on the undersides of leaves. The eggs are very small and are white in color. Each egg is attached to the leaf by an adhesive fluid that is applied to the egg as it is being laid.
A day or two before the egg hatches, it turns gray in color. This is because you are actually seeing the tiny dark colored caterpillar inside the egg shell. Four to six days after the eggs are deposited, they should hatch.
Immediately after hatching, the caterpillar is so small it can barely be seen. Before taking its first bite of milkweed, a Monarch caterpillar will usually consume its egg shell. Just 10 to 14 days after it hatches, the Monarch caterpillar is fully grown, about 2- 3/8″ long.
A monarch caterpillar molts (sheds its skin) five times during the larval stage. Similar to the way a snake sheds its skin when its body has outgrown the skin, a caterpillar does the same. A new, larger skin is always waiting under the one that is shed. The period of time between molting is called the instar.
When the caterpillar is fully grown it generally leaves the milkweed plant, sometimes crawling 20 or 30 feet away from the milkweed, until it finds a safe place to pupate. Usually a spot out of the wind on a sturdy branch.
The caterpillar’s skin is shed for the last time as it passes from the larval (caterpillar) stage to the pupa stage of metamorphosis. Under the caterpillar’s skin this time is a jade green casing which is called a chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis, which is only about an inch long, the caterpillar will miraculously transform into a beautiful butterfly.
Never again will it eat solid foods. That’s why adding nectar plants to your garden is so important. In just 9 to 14 days the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly is complete. Through the chrysalis, the day before the adult emerges, you can see the orange and black wings of the Monarch butterfly inside. Fascinating!
We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
~ Maya Angelou
Creating a Monarch Friendly Garden
The best habitat for Monarchs includes both: plants for nectar and host plants. Both are necessary for Monarchs to produce successive generations throughout the summer, and to sustain their migrations.
They also need other plants for the nectar. Without nectar from a variety of summer and fall-blooming flowers … the butterflies would be unable to make their long journey back to their overwintering grounds in Mexico. Make sure to include both host and nectar plants in your plan.
Location, Location, Location …
A good butterfly garden spot receives 6 hours or more of full sun a day. Ideally, the location will give shelter from the wind as well. The sunny side of a garage or along a solid fence in the sun offers enough protection. Any well-drained soil is acceptable for the best butterfly plants to thrive.
Plants That Attract Monarch Butterflies:
1.) Host Plants For Monarchs
Include at least two plants from the Asclepias genus (milkweed or butterfly weed) for host plants. The Asclepias species that you choose will depend upon your soil type:
If you have Dry Sandy soil – Butterflyweed, Whorled Milkweed, Showy Milkweed, Common Milkweed.
If you have Loamy soil – Sullivant’s Milkweed, Butterflyweed, Whorled Milkweed, Showy Milkweed, Common Milkweed, Red Milkweed.
What’s loamy soil? Loamy soil is a mixture of soil that is the ideal plant-growing medium. It is actually a combination soil, normally equal parts of clay, silt, sand and organic matter, which gives the benefits of each with few of the disadvantages …
If you have Clay Soil – Butterflyweed for Clay, Showy Milkweed, Common Milkweed, Red Milkweed.
If you have Moist Soil – Common Milkweed, Red Milkweed.
In general, the milkweeds grow best in full sun but some will tolerate a little shade. Aphids are a common pest on milkweeds. If you see them just spray them off the stems of the plant with a strong stream of water from the hose.
2.) Nectar Plants
Milkweeds are not the only plants they need. Adult Monarch butterflies seek nectar from a variety of other native and non-native plants, as well. The nectar provides energy to the adult butterflies and it fuels their flight.
Monarchs (and other butterflies & hummingbirds) love to stop at the following plants in our garden. You can plant them in the ground or in containers … sit back and watch them visit, fluttering from one to the other for nectar.
Butterfly Bush – Butterfly Bush or Buddleia has fragrant panicled flowers that are a magnet for butterflies and hummingbirds. For best success, do not cut it down in the fall. Instead cut it back to live growth in early spring.
It is very late to emerge from dormancy … usually late May or early June in Zones 5 / 6 before you see new life. Available in varying heights and bllom colors from blues and purples to magenta and pink.
Verbena – There are annual and perennial types of verbena for our area. All verbenas attract butterflies and do best having their spent blossoms removed regularly to promote new growth.
Pretty flowers available in assorted colors which bloom all season. These are on of my “go to” plants for container gardens. Drought tolerant and cold tolerant.
Mexican Sunflowers – A native of Mexico and Central America, tithonia (also known as Mexican sunflower) loves it hot and dry. It also provides nectar and habitat for beneficial insects.
They come in a range of heights, Monarchs tend to prefer the taller varieties. The upright habit and large, daisy-like flowers make this a good choice for the back of mixed borders in your garden plot.
Agastache – Also called Hummingbird Mint and Hyssops, are known for their profuse & long-lasting showy spikes of blooms. There are varieties with purple, lavender, pink, coral and orange flowers.
Agastache are drought and heat tolerant. Do not plant in a wet area or where they will be hit with a sprinkler system. Remove old stems just above the new foliage in the spring.
Lantana – These colorful clusters of flowers just make you smile! Lantana likes to be grown on the dry side and spent blooms need to be removed. This annual never fails to bloom all season and looks great in pots beckoning to the visiting Monarch butterflies.
The Lantana flowers may be yellow, orange, bright pink, white, red and purple, and often colors are mixed within the same cluster, creating a bright bicolored effect.
Joe Pye Weed – This attractive low maintenance perennial produces pale pink-purple flowers that last from mid-summer through fall. It’s a great addition to nearly any garden and a must have for wildlife lovers, attracting a multitude of butterflies with its sweet nectar.
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium) are hardy, easy to grow, and very adaptable. They prefer sun, but can be very happy in part shade. Deadhead to prevent reseeding and divide every few years to control spread. Joe Pye Weed also appeals to another beneficial insect … dragonflies. Read more about this mosquito-eating wonder on my recent post by clicking here
Zinnias – If there’s an easier flower to grow, we’d like to know about it! Zinnias are annuals, meaning that they go from seed to flower to seed quickly. The prefer it hot and dry and make a great cut flower.
The taller zinnias are beacons for the monarchs. These bright, cheery flowers come in a multitude of colors … I’m especially partial to the vivid oranges, yellows and bright pink hues. Dazzling!
How to Tell if a Monarch Butterfly is Male or Female
Males have a small black spot on the top surface of the hindwing. Females do not. You can see the spot when the wings are open; sometimes it’s faintly visible when the wings are closed, too.
Males also have slightly thinner wing veins. If you see them side-by-side the females tend to be slightly darker than males. Also, the tip of the abdomen of the male and female are visibly different. Well, now you know!
Summary of How To Attract Monarch Butterflies
The best habitat for Monarchs includes both host plants from the milkweed family and nectar plants to provide food for the adult Monarchs.
Make sure to find a spot with 6 hours or more of sun per day – preferably in a low wind location.
So … now you know how to attract monarch butterflies! The metamorphisis of monarch butterflies is captivating. Help these gorgeous creatures by planting a butterfly garden in your yard. You will marvel at their resilience and beauty.