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Natural Perspectives: Fostering Monarch butterfly caterpillars

February 15, 2012|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • Monarch caterpillars feeding on bloodflower milkweed in Vic and Lou's butterfly garden.
Monarch caterpillars feeding on bloodflower milkweed… (Lou Murray )

Vic and I are the proud foster parents of a group of Monarch butterfly caterpillars.

A number of years ago, we planted two butterfly gardens in our yard. This year, our effort has paid off. A Monarch butterfly laid eggs in one of our gardens a couple of weeks ago. Ten caterpillars hatched from the eggs and are happily eating our milkweeds to the nub.

The purpose of a butterfly garden is two-fold.

First, the plants provide nectar for butterflies. That part is great, because who doesn't love the colorful fluttering wings of butterflies?

The second part is less wonderful from an aesthetic point of view. The garden must also provide food for caterpillars. We won't get butterflies if we don't allow the caterpillars to access our prized plants.

We planted milkweed, lantana, and a variety of sages to provide nectar for adults and food for larvae. Two years ago, I bought one bloodflower milkweed plant from the nursery at Friends of Shipley Nature Center.

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This beautiful plant has red and orange flowers, and interesting seedpods. I let it go to seed and planted the many seeds in a variety of pots.

I was told to grow the milkweeds in pots, because when the caterpillars get through eating, what remains is merely a pot of sticks. The plant will normally regenerate if kept watered, so an active butterfly garden should have a rotating round of pots of milkweed.

You might wonder how it is that Vic and I are foster parenting the caterpillars. Normally, they pretty much take care of themselves. I figured that it would be simply a matter of watching the caterpillars grow, with no effort on our part.

But caterpillars aren't the brightest bulbs on the planet. When they have finished eating a plant, they crawl around looking for another plant. Since that other plant is in another pot, they don't know which pot to crawl up. Unfortunately, they haven't been finding those secondary food sources on their own.

They blithely crawl down the pot and into the driveway or into another random pot, which may or may not have an appropriate food source for them. I've rescued errant caterpillars from the driveway, and Vic has picked a number off our succulents.

We put each rescued wanderer on a fresh milkweed plant in another pot. In a few seconds, they have uncurled and have resumed happily eating the new plants down to the stalks.

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