What is not to love about butterflies? They are beautiful and graceful. Every year we enjoyed searching for Monarch butterfly eggs on the wild milkweed plants at a local pond. Then one year, the area was destroyed by the town to control flooding in an area where flooding did not even have a serious impact on homeowners or traffic. So, I decided to raise our own caterpillars!
I purchased swamp milkweed plants (white flowering) from Butterflybushes.com (Rose Franklin Perennials) and put them in the bed next to our house. These plants appear to be deer and rabbit resistant as I never sprayed them with deer away and they were not nibbled to nubs by passing deer or rabbits. I bought about 6 swamp milkweed plants in May. If you’ve seen milkweed growing in the wild, you may think it’s not a very attractive plant to place in your flower beds … and you’d be correct. However, the swamp milkweed is a “feminine” version of wild milkweed. It has dainty leaves and blends in well in your flower beds. I put the plants on the side of the house where they get full sun most of the day. I planted them about 1foot apart. They grew to about 3feet so you may want to put them in the back of your bed if you have shorter plants you’d like to put in front. They also tend to get top heavy so plan on staking them upright once they are mature. They didn’t require any other special care. If it was very dry or they were wilting, I did water them. Once the caterpillars grow to several inches in length, they will look for a place to form a chrysalis. I have never seen them to do this on milkweed but seem to prefer neighboring plants. So do plant very, leafy bushy green plants amongst your milkweed to encourage the caterpillars to stay near by. We did have one attach to the siding of the house and another underneath the deck!
(((Caution))) I did learn from a reader that Milkweed, along with so many plants, are toxic to pets. If you have outdoor pets that love to eat plants, exercise caution. Here is a long list of plants that are toxic to pets and the signs to look for in your pet if you suspect they are have eaten milkweed.
Here is a photo of the flowers and the long slender leaves of the swamp milkweed. Unfortunately, you also see the aphid infestation. This is very, very bad for the plants, and for you. You may be tempted to bring in the ladybugs to take care of your aphids but stop that thought right now. Ladybugs will eat baby Monarch caterpillars. Ok, I might as well tell this humorous story. I had the bright idea to release hundreds of ladybugs purchased from our local nursery to eat the aphids. We did this at night as instructed. Right after releasing the ladybugs, I remembered that I saw a ladybug eating a baby Monarch caterpillar the year before. The entire family was out at 10pm with flashlights rescuing all of the caterpillars! I put them in our butterfly house with milkweed leaves. We only lost one caterpillar to the ladybugs. That was a close call. Why I didn’t remember that a few minutes BEFORE releasing the ladybugs is beyond me. So how do you get rid of the aphids? The hard way. Take a damp paper towel, and painstakingly, smash the little buggers. Do this every single day and after a few weeks, you will be aphid-free. The infestation happens quickly and it does stunt the growth of the plants. Once I removed all the aphids, the plants resumed growing.
One morning, my daughter saw a Monarch butterfly flying near the house. We stood quietly on the porch to observe. I have never seen such behavior in a butterfly.I can best describe it as uncontrolled excitement. The butterfly couldn’t decide which plant she’d land on first. She had her tail in a curled position and I knew she would lay eggs.Later in the day, we very carefully, turned over leaves by grabbing gently on the very tips to look for eggs. The eggs are like tiny pearls. BINGO! We found several eggs on two bushes!
After about four or five days, the eggs will hatch! Take the same care you did when looking for eggs by gently turning over the leaves by the tips. In the evenings, the caterpillars tend to go down to the ground and move up the plant early morning. If you see holes missing from leaves, you know you have a Monarch caterpillar!
UPDATE: I just received How to Raise Monarch Butterflies, and it is a keeper! It is an all in one resource on caring for Monarch butterflies!
Stay tuned for part 2 where I will explain how we cared for the caterpillars both outdoors and indoors so that we could watch the metamorphosis.