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Native Milkweed is important to the success of the Monarch Butterfly

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Image: Monarch Butterflies nectaring on Swamp Milkweed. Photo by Peg Urban

As summer weather winds down, conservationists are keeping an eye on the annual monarch migration. And many local gardeners are trying to do everything they can to support the black-and-orange butterflies on their journey south – but they might be loving them to death.

Pollinator gardens help monarchs by providing them with their preferred food, milkweed. There are dozens of varieties of milkweed. Tropical milkweed lives in Florida year-round, which is cool if you just want to see butterflies in your yard all year. But if you want to help rebuild the declining population, you need to plant the right kind of milkweed – a native variety that dies back in the fall.

If monarchs stay here all winter stuffing their little faces, they run the risk of dying in a cold snap or, worse, becoming infected with OE, a parasite that causes birth defects like crumpled wings and dwarfism.

Jaret Daniels, a lepidopterist at the University of Florida, says it’s a “chicken-and-egg” problem – the public doesn’t know where to find native milkweed, but garden stores say there’s no market for it. Luckily, the Florida Association of Native Nurseries lists retail nurseries selling native milkweed at their website, afnn.org.

If you’re gardening for looks, be aware that the monarch caterpillars will eat holes in your milkweed even before it dies off, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to attract them at all. But sometimes doing the right thing isn’t pretty.

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