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Monarch butterflies are disappearing, and we’re part of the problem

DIRT THERAPY By Marianne Taylor
DIRT THERAPY By Marianne Taylor

By Marianne Taylor

Where have all the Monarchs gone?

This past summer and fall our Los Rios Park Garden Angel volunteers were surprised to find very few Monarch butterflies fluttering about in the parks’ certified butterfly gardens. The tropical milkweed was in full bloom, when it normally would have looked like twigs—which isn’t a good sign, since the Monarch caterpillars only feast on milkweed flowers, leaves and stems, leaving behind ragged twigs.

As I researched the staggering reasons for the Monarch decline in our gardens, I quickly realized we gardeners are part of the worldwide problem. Luckily, the Los Rios garden volunteers deadheaded all the colorful flower heads in October in hopes the beneficial insects will make a come back to the Los Rios Park and neighboring gardens this summer.

I decided to further my due diligence and find out what exactly is happening worldwide to these pollinating insects that bring annual joy to the garden. Unfortunately, caring and concerned gardeners are part of the problem. By purchasing tropical milkweed to help save the Monarch population, we’re actually stopping their natural migration cycle to Mexico.

Monarch butterflies are wintering in our gardens, thus making them susceptible to a protozoan parasite called Ophryocystis elekrosccirrha (Oe). Oe is responsible for the loss of butterfly habitats, as it infects the caterpillar munching on the leaves and turns the chrysalis black. This disables, or even ends up killing, the butterfly.

The milkweed leaves harbor the Oe disease. Tropical milkweed is evergreen, while all other native milkweeds are deciduous, which means they shed the infection in winter. It is important to remove every tropical leaf and prune tropical stems to 4 inches continuously during fall and winter so as to not interrupt the Monarchs’ migration south. It is best to use California native milkweed, also known as California narrow leaf milkweed.

To my shock, the massive decline of Monarchs doesn’t stop with good-intentioned gardeners. The Monarch butterfly is currently on the endangered list due to startling recent studies indicating their habitat has declined by 80 percent over the past 20 years.

What’s causing the massive decline in habitat? According to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), several issues are responsible—the loss of milkweed in the Monarchs’ summer grounds due to weed spraying and urbanization, increased logging of their winter home in Mexico, severe spring storms in the Midwest that killed millions of Monarchs, and persisting drought conditions.

The CBD also notes that the butterfly’s decline has been driven, in part, by the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops in the Midwest, where the majority of Monarchs hatch. Most of the genetically engineered crops are made to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, a potent killer to milkweed, which is the only source of food for the Monarch caterpillar.

In the past 20 years, these once common butterflies may have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat about the size of Texas, or nearly a third of their breeding grounds. With the collapse of their migratory habitat, they may face extinction in the next 20 years.

The CBD has filed a lawsuit to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether to protect the Monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act by June 30, 2019. Such protections would safeguard their habitat and ensure the Monarchs’ recovery.

The Monarchs’ future may sound bleak, but with all our help, we can turn things around before it’s too late.

On March 23 from 9-11 a.m., Goin Native Therapeutic Gardens and the Los Rios Garden Angel volunteers we will be planting native milkweed at the Los Rios Park’s certified butterfly garden. Join us in the garden and help us plant, or if can’t join us, consider donating a plant to the park. We’re also encouraging local gardeners to support the Monarchs by planting native milkweed in their gardens.

Be sure to purchase milkweed from a nursery that doesn’t use pesticide on the plant—I prefer Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. It’s best to plant several milkweeds among other flowering plants. Be sure not to use any pesticides in your garden—Roundup kills both weeds and butterflies.

To learn more about creating healthy butterfly gardens, check out our free Smart Gardening class at Reata Park on Feb. 25 at 9:30 a.m. Hosted by Goin Native Therapeutic Gardens and taught by the UCCE Orange County Master Gardeners, this class will get you started on the right path. For more information, visit

Marianne Taylor, of San Juan Capistrano, is the founder and executive director of Goin Native Therapeutic Gardens, a 501(c)(3) teaching gardening and life skills as a way of empowering, engaging and connecting people. Goin Native focuses on educating local families, special needs adults, seniors, at-risk youth and members of the military.

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