Planting milkweed can make Highland Lakes a monarch way station
DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
MARBLE FALLS — “It’s really very easy to do this,” said Beth Mortenson of the Highland Lakes Master Gardener Association. “And this can make a big difference for the monarch butterflies.”
Mortenson, who is a plant propagation specialist-qualified Master Gardener, pointed out one of the nodes on a milkweed plant — a tropical milkweed to be specific. The node is home to plant cells that have not been “assigned” their future tasks, so making a cutting there (actually below it) and then placing it in a planting medium (soil) allows those cells to become root cells.
And now, you are well on your way to making a successful cutting and another milkweed plant, which monarchs love and depend on during their migrations both to and from Mexico.
“The monarchs are in trouble, but we can make a difference by doing something as simple as planting milkweed,” Mortenson said. She explained that the monarchs’ “home base” is in the mountains of Central Mexico, where they winter. Over the past decades, land-use practices have changed and much of the winter habitat is gone, though the Mexican government has begun protecting areas of it.
Even then, it’s just not an issue for Mexico. The monarch butterflies winter in Mexico, but they just might be the ultimate snow bird. The butterflies’ summer grounds, however, are often found in Canada and the northern United States. So each spring, the monarchs erupt from the trees of Central Mexico and head north.
Along they way, they cross over Texas — including the Highland Lakes. The trip north could take two or three life cycles of a monarch before it actually lands in its summer range. This means that, along the way, monarchs look for a place to lay their eggs, a food source for emergent caterpillars and a spot for a caterpillar’s chrysalis.
On the trip south, it only takes one generation to make the journey, Mortenson said.
“It’s one of the most incredible migrations in the world,” she said. “These monarchs (heading south) have never been to Mexico, but they know how to get there.”
It’s not an easy journey, but one fraught with perils and problems. On the trip south, the monarchs might not lay eggs, but they still need food sources and places to rest.
“We call these places ‘way stations,'” Mortenson said.
Over the decades, land use and management have destroyed many of the natural monarch way stations, but people can help with a couple of simple things: planting a monarch food source and providing them water.
“And the plant the monarch butterflies use most often is the milkweed,” Mortenson said.
While they like the common milkweed, monarchs flock to tropical milkweeds.
“If I plant a line of (common) milkweeds and one tropical one, they’ll go to the tropical one,” she said.
Though not native to the Highland Lakes, tropical milkweed thrives in the area and is easy to propagate. Mortenson said the obvious way to get milkweed is to buy it at a nursery. But if you’re looking to expand your milkweed numbers, you also can seed or cut.
“The advantage you have with taking a cutting is you may have a plant that monarchs just seem more attracted to for whatever reason,” she said. “If you make a cutting of it, then you have basically a clone of it because its genetic makeup is the same.”
Unlike seeds, which require cross-pollination, a cutting is a pure replication of the mother plant.
“It’s not that hard to do,” Mortenson explained.
Basically, you take a cutting from this year’s growth and pinch off the lower leaves from the stem. Then you dip the lowest node in water and, after that, some hormone-rooting powder (tap off excess.) Place the cutting into a small hole in planting medium and tap down the soil around it.
You can then place a (clear) plastic dome over it to mimic a greenhouse effect.
“In a few weeks, you should have some that are ready to plant in the ground,” Mortenson said.
The milkweed serves as a host plant for monarchs heading north in that they lay their eggs on it and the caterpillar eats it and then builds its chrysalis on it. Mortenson said laying the egg to a monarch emerging might all happen on one milkweed plant (if it’s big enough.) Caterpillars do manage to eat quite a few leaves.
“It’s amazing to watch the whole process,” Mortenson said.
Right now, the Highland Lakes is probably on the tail end of the southern migration, but some monarchs are still making their way through. These, Mortenson said, need way stations, which include milkweeds, other plants and water.
“They need resting spots to re-energize and feed,” she said. “We’re trying to encourage their numbers, and we’re trying to encourage people to plant way stations. You’ll be amazed at how the monarchs find the milkweeds.”
Go to burnetcountyhighlandlakesmastergardener.org for more information on the Highland Lakes Master Gardeners and monarchwatch.org for more on monarch butterflies.