Attract and feed these natural pollinators with a diverse range of beautiful plants.
Each spring, monarch butterflies make their journey northward and then begin their return to overwintering sites in Mexico towards the end of the year. Over the course of this epic migration (which ranges from as far as southern Canada to South America), the butterflies require nectar sources and host plants upon which to lay the eggs of a new generation of offspring. As little as a decade ago, the arrival of fall in this country was heralded by the flutter of the burnished orange wings of monarch butterflies. Once innumerable, monarch populations have dwindled in recent years due to the gradual extermination of its host plant: a genus of natives called milkweed. A tenacious weed common to agricultural lands, milkweeds are also toxic to livestock, making them a familiar foe for farmers. The vast cornfields that lay on the midpoint of the monarch’s migration—Kansas, Iowa, Missouri—now represent an ecological desert for the butterfly. Stripped of suitable reproduction sites and few places to feed, the traditional autumnal monarch sighting has become more and more rare.
It’s important for us to keep monarchs on the landscape as pollinators to maintain biodiversity. Fortunately, there’s something we can do about it, and the solution begins in your garden. Just as summer’s ample supply of flowers begins to wane, the butterflies start their southern migration. To ensure they get the food they need, monarchs follow the blooming of late summer’s composites, such as goldenrod and aster. Often found along roadside ditches, lawn edges, and old fields, these plants are important nectar sources but are often mowed down or sprayed with herbicide, leaving little for autumn pollinators. To help a hungry monarch, make space in your garden for goldenrod and aster. New England aster comes in every shade of pink and purple imaginable and does well tucked in the back border of a yard, where it can grow to its full imposing height of five feet.
In fall, it will be crowned with a blaze of brilliantly colored blooms—and monarchs will take notice. Goldenrods are native throughout North America, so take your pick of large or small, compact or leggy, dry land or wetland species. Each one sports a bright spire of yellow flowers in late summer and early fall, and each flower is a terrific producer of the sweet stuff all monarchs need. If your garden is too small for extra plants, put aside a patch of lawn and let it revert back to native meadow. Nectar-rich wildflowers like aster and goldenrod will naturally reclaim these untended spaces. Even if it’s just a little strip a few feet wide, it can and will make a difference for monarchs and all other pollinators. Other good native plant nectar sources include mountain mint, ironweed, and blazing star.