Monarch butterfly caterpillar, Aug. 3, 2020.

NATURE’S TURN: Plant it and they will come: Monarch butterfly metamorphosis in the garden

Let’s plant more milkweed, raise more butterflies, witness more beauty and reverse the threat of extinction.

August 24 – September 6, 2020

“I think we need to realize that biological treasures such as the monarch are just as valuable as the Mona Lisa.” — Lincoln P. Brower, entomologist/ecologist*

“The colorful insect’s migration across the North American continent is one of the greatest natural events on Earth.” — Jason Bittel, National Geographic**

Swamp milkweed in bloom, Aug. 2, 2020. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Mount Washington — Feeding wildlife is usually not one of a gardener’s goals. To provide food and a nursery for monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) is a higher calling. The survival of monarchs, the only butterflies to embark on seasonal migration – up to thousands of miles at that – depends on gardeners, farmers and the general public rallying to plant any of the zone-appropriate garden or field varieties of native milkweed (Asclepius) on any patch of ground. Milkweed plants are essential in the monarch’s life cycle as both food and shelter. As reported by the National Wildlife Federation, “…eradication of milkweed both in agricultural areas as well as in urban and suburban landscapes is one of the primary reasons that monarchs are in trouble today.” Plant milkweed to simply add beautiful flowering plants to your landscape: An engaging adventure may ensue.

An insect with a 4-inch wingspan, a monarch butterfly is light as air at less than half a gram and has a brain the size of a pinhead (think microchip). Monarchs travel some 250 miles per day to cover 1,200 to 3,000 miles in their migration between summer and winter habitats (see National Geographic in Resources, below, to learn how this is possible).

The monarch’s life cycle is a journey in itself, one I have been observing in my garden. I discovered the nearly full-grown caterpillar at the top of this page one month after I planted milkweed. A few days later, the caterpillar had affixed itself to the bottom of a leaf on the plant it was eating and curled into its “J” phase.

Monarch butterfly caterpillar in its ‘J’ stage, Aug. 5, 2020. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Back to the urgency of planting milkweed! On July 1, at a local nursery, I purchased a 3- to 4-foot-tall swamp milkweed (Aesclepius incarnata) in a 1.5-gallon pot to add to a native plant border. My experience with many wetland plants has been that they are adaptable to garden beds rich in organic matter, which retain sufficient moisture to support them. Different from common milkweed (Aesclepius syriaca), which is most suitable for meadow landscapes and wild borders, swamp milkweed and butterfly milkweed (Aesclepius tuberosa) are ideal for flower gardens; they are not aggressive spreaders.

Late in the season, nursery-grown plants are often root-bound, like the Aesclepius incarnata I brought home last month (see the photograph of the root ball as it came out of its pot, roots wrapped tightly around the soil, even forming a mesh at the bottom).

Swamp milkweed, July 1, 2020. Photo: Judy Isacoff

The next photograph shows the plant after being teased apart so that the roots can be spread out to make contact with the ground when planted. Assertive pulling revealed three substantial plants, now thriving in the border.

From one to three viable plants, July 1, 2020. Photo: Judy Isacoff

I did not see the monarch or the egg it placed on my milkweed about two weeks after planting; what I found was a nearly fully developed caterpillar. I also missed the transition from “J” to the sealing of itself into its exquisite covering, the next stage in monarch metamorphosis: chrysalis. At this writing, the chrysalis is 14 days old, time for the butterfly to emerge.

Let’s plant more milkweed, raise more butterflies, witness more beauty and reverse the threat of extinction.

Monarch butterfly chrysalis, Aug. 7, 2020. Photo: Judy Isacoff


Native Plants and Landscape Design – Helia Native Nursery, West Stockbridge, MA Available now: A. incarnata and A. syriaca


Image courtesy