Creating a Monarch Butterfly Hotspot

Waystations can be havens for our other fluttering friends
By Anna Sipos

In a few months we can all look forward to catching a glimpse of butterflies fluttering aimlessly in our gardens, checking out the possibilities for a meal or a nap in the sun. If you happen to see a monarch butterfly, chances are that this incredible little creature has just completed a 3,000-kilometre or 1,860-mile flight from
Mexico and is looking for food and a place to lay eggs. Monarchs born here in late summer migrate to Mexico where they spend the winter and their offspring make the same long flight back to Canada in the spring. Now that’s a very long trip indeed. The migration of the monarchs is truly one of the world’s greatest wonders, yet their very existence is being threatened more and more as the countryside is bull-dozed for the building of new subdivisions, shopping malls, factories, and more. The use of herbicides and the frequent mowing of roadsides also threatens the existence of these wonderful butterflies. Their habitat is converted into grasslands which do not provide the food and shelter they need.
To help the monarchs survive, the University of Kansas started a program called Monarch Watch, which has a goal of certifying 10,000 Monarch Waystations  throughout North America so that migrating monarchs will have patches of food and rest spots throughout their journey. At the present time there are just over 5000 certified waystations listed on their website and of these, 10 are in Ottawa with several others located nearby.
Monarch Watch is a nonprofit education, conservation and research organization that focuses on the monarch butterfly, its habitat, and its spectacular migration. Their website is chock-full of helpful information, including the form to send in when your garden is ready to be certified and the option to buy a lovely plaque to display in your garden stating that it is an official Monarch Waystation.
A Monarch Waystation is a garden or a field where the butterflies are assured of finding the food and shelter they need in order to survive. To create a successful one, we need to provide milkweeds for the larvae (caterpillars), nectar plants for the adults and sufficient vegetation to serve as a shelter for the larvae, pupae and adults. It can be done within existing gardens and there are no minimum requirements for the size. Waystations created in home gardens, at schools,  businesses, parks, nature centres, along roadsides and other unused plots of land contribute to monarch conservation and help assure the preservation of the species.
The waystation should include plants that bloom at different times to provide nectar from spring until fall. Choose a sunny location (at least six hours of sun a day) and place the short plants in front and tall ones behind and clump them by species and colour. As butterflies search for food, they see large splashes of colour more easily than small points of individual flowers. Your waystation doesn’t need to be all in one bed but can be split among several locations in your
garden. Butterflies are particularly attracted to red, orange, yellow and purple flowers. Don’t be disappointed if they ignore some highly recommended plants. Instead, watch and record their preferences and plant more of the popular species next year. And, the most important thing to remember is never use pesticides or herbicides in your butterfly garden.
Another very important fact about monarchs is that their caterpillars are very selective eaters, eating only milkweed leaves. Fortunately, there are many types of milkweed (Asclepias is the scientific name) that thrive in our climate and that are also beautiful perennials. It is desirable to have at least 10 plants total of two or three species of milkweed. Of course, if you have the space and want to plant more than that, the butterflies will be very happy!
In the Ottawa climate, some milkweeds are not perennial, meaning they cannot survive our winters. Some that are perennial in Ottawa include swamp milkweed, butterfly weed and tropical milkweed. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is available as ‘Cinderella’ with dark pink flowers, and ‘Ice Ballet’ with white flowers.
Butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) comes in various shades of yellow and orange. Tropical milkweed (A. curassavica) can be started from seed and although an annual here, will reseed the following year. Milkweed likes to be in welldrained soil with lots of sun.
Once the caterpillar pupates and then emerges as a butterfly, the food demand changes to nectar so we must include plants that have a good source of nectar. Native plants offer more nectar than cultivated and exotic species which are bred for showiness. Some suggested plants include: purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or any other type of coneflower; Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) and don’t let the name scare you – these plants are not weeds at all; Verbena; Phlox; Sedum; New England aster; any type of Rudbeckia or black-eyed Susan; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis); any type of Monarda (also known as bee balm); and cat mint (Nepeta), which is not the same as cat nip. If you like to add annuals to your garden for colour each spring then consider Zinnia, Salvia,
Verbena, sunflowers and Cosmos.
To provide shelter for the monarchs, plants should be planted close together but not crowding each other. A Monarch Waystation looks just like any other vibrant and colourful garden and is easy to maintain. In addition to its beauty, it helps to preserve the threatened monarch butterfly species for future  generations. This makes for a wonderful win-win garden!

Butterfly garden tips:
Two great websites for more information on creating and certifying a Monarch Waystation and creating a butterfly garden:
Anna Sipos enjoys her garden in the west end of Ottawa and has designed it as a haven for butterflies, birds and wildlife. Her garden is a certified Monarch Waystation (# 3790). Anna volunteers with the Master Gardeners of Ottawa Carleton – a group which assists home gardeners by providing free advice at clinics and lectures, and answering questions by phone (613 236-0034) or e-mail:


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