Monarchs and the Gardens That Attract them

Photos by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted September 2009
by Clay and Pat Sutton

Right now local, wildlife-friendly gardens are full of Monarchs.

Just walk along the beach to see butterflies migrants steadily flying south some days a trickle (one here, one there), other days a stream, and after cold fronts, a river of Monarchs!

Monarchs that summered in Canada and northern New England are the first to migrate south. Due to coldfronts and associated north and northwest winds, many are carried out to the coast. They follow the coastline south, hopscotching from one wildflower meadow to the next, and from one butterfly garden to the next. Many are funneled to the tip of the Cape May Peninsula.

This final fall generation of Monarchs from throughout the East is migrating to the mountains of Mexico where they will winter and not think about mating until late February. Because they have not mated yet and instead are migrating, they live longer (nine months) than summer Monarchs.

For some time now, butterfly gardeners have been delighted, day-after-day, by many Monarchs dashing about after each other, nectaring, mating, and laying eggs on various milkweeds.

Even if you didn’t succeed in attracting Monarchs to your yard in April, when the progeny of those that wintered in the mountains of Mexico returned, just about everyone with a butterfly garden is seeing them now.

Gardeners who have planted specifically with Monarchs in mind are now being rewarded with the fruits of their labor.

In these wildlife-friendly gardens bright orange and black Monarchs are bouncing around from flower to flower, nectaring on native wildflowers like Ironweed, Boneset, Mistflower, Tall Sunflower, Seaside Goldenrod, New England Aster, as well as some non-natives like Sedum, Mexican Sunflower, and Zinnia. Butterfly Bush is a favorite with Monarchs too, but not a favorite with native plant gardeners due to its potential to wander into the wild and crowd out native plants.

Male Monarchs can be told from females by their scent patch and slimmer veins. Females are darker orange, have thicker veins, and no scent patch. If you see a pair of Monarchs flying around in tandem, it’s a male holding onto and mating with a female. This mated pair will perch, fly when flushed, perch again in a safe spot, and remain attached sometimes for hours.

Each non-migratory female Monarch lays about 600 eggs on various milkweeds over her month-long life. In Cape May County many of us have created Monarch Waystations by planting a variety of milkweeds that Monarchs lay their eggs on: Swamp Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, Common Milkweed, Tropical Milkweed , Purple Milkweed and Poke Milkweed, to name a few.

A Monarch egg hatches in three days. The tiny caterpillar feasts on milkweed for one and one-half to three weeks until it is full size. It crawls off in search of a safe place to go into the chrysalis stage. Eight to eleven days later the adult Monarch emerges from the chrysalis.

This life cycle, from egg to adult Monarch, takes about one month. It is called metamorphosis, which means “complete change in life form,” though the terms magic and miracle work too!

Right now some milkweed patches have been stripped bare by hungry caterpillars. In our own garden we’ve resorted to moving caterpillars from the Tropical Milkweed patch to the robust leaves of our Common Milkweed plants, so the Tropical Milkweed, an annual, can send out new growth and even rebloom.

Cape May County, buffered by the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay, has a longer growing season than inland and temperatures are quite mild well into the fall. To our summer Monarchs, it’s almost like the tropics. We see resident Monarchs mating and laying eggs right through October, trying to create one more generation before summer’s end, while migrants from inland or further north, programmed to migrate, at the same time are passing through.

Don’t miss the Cape May Bird Observatory’s “Monarch-Tagging Demos,” every day (except Mondays and Tuesdays) through October 18, from 2:00 to 2:30 p.m. (weather permitting) at the Cape May Point State Park’s East Shelter picnic pavilion (next to the hawk watch platform). They are free.

Now is the time to enjoy pure magic!

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and the authors of Birds and Birding at Cape May.


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