While attracting monarch butterflies to your garden is always a delight, it’s never been more important to care for these beautiful creatures. Population levels of the migratory monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) have been declining for years, and in July 2022, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) officially designated the migratory monarch butterfly an endangered species.
Native populations have declined by between 22 and 72% over the last decade, according to the IUCN, mainly because of habitat destruction and the impacts of climate change. Now, the species known for flying nearly 3,000 miles during its annual migration across North America is on the edge of extinction.
While the news that the migratory monarch butterfly is officially endangered is a jarring one, it has served to raise awareness of the plight of these gorgeous butterflies, says Mary Phillips, the head of Garden for Wildlife from the National Wildlife Federation. Garden for Wildlife sells plants and curated plant collections that can serve as food and habitat for local wildlife, and since the IUCN announcement about monarchs, they’ve received more interest in plants that support the monarch—namely, milkweed.
“I just think the demand for these plants has more than tripled in the past couple years because people have become so much more aware,” Phillips says. “Since that announcement with the ICUN, we have just been inundated with requests for learning more about milkweed and where to get it.”
While planting milkweed is an important step in saving the monarch, it’s just one action you can take. Read on for steps you can take now to protect the migratory monarch butterfly in your area.
Milkweed will come up in many conversations about protecting migratory monarch butterfly populations, and for good reason: This plant has coevolved with the monarch, Phillips says, and has become a key element of any good monarch butterfly habitat.
“Milkweed is critical because it is the only plant they can raise their caterpillars on,” Phillips says. “Native milkweed allows the caterpillars to fuel and feed and grow into full caterpillars. It’s the only plant that they can eat, because they get toxins from those leaves that protect them from predators.”
Migratory adult butterflies begin their long journey from the northern United States and Canada to central Mexico in September, October, and early November, according to the Monarch Joint Venture. With three migratory corridors—one cutting down the west coast and staying in California, one crossing through the central United States, and other traveling down the east coast—planting milkweed in yards and outdoor spaces across the country can help monarchs survive the flight.
“If homeowners can plant milkweed in their gardens, they can help ensure a safe path for the monarch during this important migratory time,” says Blythe Yost, co-founder and chief landscape architect at Tilly, an online landscape design service that partners with the National Wildlife Federation to design landscape plans for yards that can become Certified Wildlife Habitats.
If you’ve decided to plant milkweed, make sure you select a variety that is native to your area (dozens are native to various U.S. regions, Yost says). You can get free milkweed seeds as part of monarch conservation efforts or purchase live plants: Garden for Wildlife offers a Monarch Munchable collection of regionally grown plants, including milkweed, that support monarchs. (You input your zip code while ordering to ensure the plants are native to your area.) You can also use a native plant finder to determine which variety of milkweed is native to your area, then visit a local garden center to purchase the appropriate plant.
It might sound like a lot of effort to track down the right plant, but it’s necessary: “It’s important to get the right native milkweed,” Phillips says. A non-native variety of milkweed may not survive as well in your area as a native one might, and a native variety will have coevolved with the butterflies that typically pass through your area to offer them the best possible protection.
Milkweed is essential—as a host plant for monarch larvae, it’s key to the species’ reproduction, Phillips says. But migratory monarch butterflies also need fuel plants.
“We’re going into the fall migration season, so there are also other plants that are critical for the monarchs during their migration journey,” Phillips says.
As milkweed begins to die back during fall—as a perennial, milkweed goes dormant in winter and returns the following spring—in the middle of the monarch migration season, the butterflies must turn to other key plants for fuel during their journey.
“It’s really important in this fall period to have asters and goldenrods,” Phillips says. “[They] are two really great examples of plants that provide additional fuel for those adult monarchs as they make the rest of the journey. That’s absolutely critical, especially this time of year.”
While you’re shopping around for milkweed, look for these fuel plants, too—they’re included in Garden for Wildlife’s Monarch Munchable collection, and you can also speak with your local garden center’s experts on what they recommend for your area. Just act quickly, especially if temperatures are already dropping in your area.
“Now’s an amazing time to plant because for most of the country it’s still warm enough, and these plants are cold-hardy over the colder months, and they come back bigger in the spring, so that you can start the whole cycle again of the three-season bloom,” Phillips says.
You can use services like Tilly to craft an intentional habitat for monarchs (and other wildlife) or get wildlife habitat certification from the National Wildlife Federation for your yard or garden on your own, but you can also take smaller steps to provide a habitat for monarchs.
“Create places in your yard where [butterflies] can rest and find shelter from the elements,” Yost says. “This can be as simple as piles of leaves or brush in a safe space, a log, tall grasses, etc.”
Remember the key elements of any good habitat: food, water, shelter, and space. If your yard is a certified habitat or designed to be a good habitat, it will include all these elements to attract and protect wildlife, including monarch butterflies. Making your space friendly to monarch butterflies will also help all local wildlife, migratory or otherwise.
“The asters and goldenrod provide a lot of fuel for monarchs and others with their pollen and nectar, but also some of them are host plants for other types of butterfly and bee species,” Phillips says.
“Monarchs cannot land on water to drink, so provide butterfly puddling stations in your yard for them,” Yost says. “These should be shallow areas and water that is refreshed occasionally. You can create a natural puddling area by digging a wide, shallow depression or having a very shallow dish. Add some landscape sand, compost, or garden soil to the water to keep it moist and allow for drinking ease!”
Water is a vital element of any good habitat. You can help migrating monarchs easily (and safely) access water by setting up a puddling dish: a shallow dish full of clean water that butterflies can drink from.
“If you have a puddling dish that’s very shallow water with pebbles and stones, it also gives them minerals, and they can just alight on it and take little sips of water that they need,” Phillips says. “That’s a really great water source. If you have that and you plant the native plants, you’re actually providing all those elements of habitat.”
Phillips says bird baths are typically too deep for butterflies. Instead, she recommends a shallow dish made of terracotta or another natural material (metal dishes can get too hot). Terracotta planter bases or drainage dishes are a great option, she and Yost agree.
Once you’ve set up your dish or body of water, don’t just forget about it. You need to refresh the water to keep it clean for the butterflies and to prevent mosquitos from laying eggs in it, Yost says.
Wherever you purchase your monarch-supporting plants, make sure they’re free of insecticides and other harsh chemicals. Some plants will go through multiple growing facilities in their journey from seed to purchasable plant, Phillips says, and as such it can be hard to know what those plants were treated with before they came to you. Whenever possible, shop directly from a grower, or do your research to make sure that harsh chemicals weren’t used: These chemicals can harm butterflies and other important pollinators.
By providing plants that come directly from the grower and go straight to the consumer, Garden for Wildlife ensures that its offerings are free of insecticides.
“Ours is not treated with neonicotinoid chemicals,” Phillips says. “I think that’s an absolutely key point to make. Wherever you’re getting your milkweed, check the source. You need to know that none of [the growers] have used those chemicals.”
It’s important to stay away from harsh insecticides even after you’ve planted your milkweed and other butterfly-friendly plants, too.
“Avoid spraying your yard with pesticides and instead focus on organic practices,” Yost says.