When Planaria Price learned Sunset Boulevard Nursery in Silverlake was selling native, narrow leaf milkweed, she rushed out and bought six seedlings, planting them around her home in Echo Park on Wednesday.
Home gardeners just like Price are part of a loose-knit citizens brigade, adding the native weed to yards, parkways and greenbelts throughout Southern California in order to attract breeding monarch butterflies, the orange and black beauties on the verge of extinction that have taken flight in record numbers this year.
“I planted them today, some in my backyard and front yard,” she said Wednesday. “And one near the porch so I can watch. I am very excited,” added Price, 78, who understands that native milkweed is the only plant that the monarchs will land on to lay eggs that transition into caterpillars and metamorphose into adult butterflies.
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) of North America are making a miraculous comeback despite global warming, habitat destruction and drought. In winter 2021, Western monarchs overwintering in California numbered 247,237 — more than a 100-fold increase from the previous year when about 2,000 were counted, according to data released by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a Portland, Oregon-based conservation group that monitors monarch populations.
Native milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) is the only plant the monarchs will come to, and lay their eggs. Native milkweed has been decimated in the natural environment by development, wildfires and drought. So Xerces and other environmental groups have begun a campaign to get home gardeners to plant milkweed to make up for shortages in the wild.
Entomologists don’t know why these showy butterflies are exclusively attracted to this natural, flowering perennial plant for their breeding and for food. “Milkweed is the only food plant they use. Like koala bears eat eucalyptus leaves, monarchs eat the milkweed,” said Brian Brown, entomologist with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History in Exposition Park.
The connection between native milkweed and monarch breeding is a link spread by plant societies, such as the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley, to encourage more butterfly gardeners.
Theodore Payne has been selling the plant like hotcakes for the last few years, ever since Xerces put out the word that the monarchs face extinction and asked gardeners to plant the weed, said Evan Meyer, executive director.
“Every summer, we see a large rush into the nursery to buy milkweed to attract the monarch butterfly,” Meyer said. “It is an example of the general public serving a species that needs help.”
Charles Miller, a sustainability expert from Palms, helped plant the native milkweed in 2020 in what is now the Westwood Greenway. The 3-acre swath of old roadway and oil fields between Westwood Boulevard and Overland Avenue along the LA Metro Expo (E) Line near Culver City has been transformed into a green oasis.
“It is in bloom now,” Miller said in late May. “We see monarch butterflies every single day.” He gives tours and educates visitors on the correct milkweed to plant, reminding them that Los Angeles County has lost 90% of its butterflies in the past 150 years.
On May 24, a report from the World Wildlife Fund Mexico about the eastern monarchs that migrate and roost in the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City said monarchs were seen occupying 2.84 hectares of forest last winter — an increase of 35% as compared to the winter of 2020-2021, when they occupied 2.1 hectares.
The find of nearly 250,000 western monarchs counted in coastal California, coupled with this newer survey of eastern monarchs, has left scientists hopeful that the iconic, colorful insects are making their way back from the abyss of extinction.
“We have an abundance of monarchs this year. We definitely have monarchs breeding in every county in Southern California,” said Susie Vanderlip, Southern California conservation specialist from Monarch Watch, a nonprofit group based at the University of Kansas, that supports teams of butterfly spotters throughout the nation.
Vanderlip heard from thousands of local citizen gardeners about their progress with milkweed plantings and butterfly sightings. This year, her social media platforms are filled with stories from everyday folks who’ve seen monarchs hatch or just flying about in their yards. They are reporting from Yorba Linda and Orange to Temecula and Pasadena — all over Southern California, she said. Gardeners can go online and map their progress.
“I have seen monarchs for the first time in a while in my neighborhood in Pasadena and in Altadena,” said Wayne April, whose milkweed plants wilted in winter but are rejuvenating. “Last year I didn’t see any.”
In suburban Valley Glen in the San Fernando Valley, Greater Valley Glen Council Board Member Alicia Bien led an effort in February to plant milkweed and other native plants to create a butterfly garden at Valley Glen Park.
Botanists and nursery owners caution that only native, narrow-leaf milkweed will attract monarchs and allow them to breed naturally.
A tropical variety of milkweed often sold in big box stores are a food source, but the butterflies that eat these leaves physiologically change and shorten their life spans, leaving no breeding populations, explained Brown.
Brown, who oversees the Natural History Museum’s Butterfly Pavilion, says there’s no empirical evidence that home gardeners and nonprofit-launched campaigns are making a difference. “I don’t know. But I think it is good people are trying to do something,” he said.
If the roosts — places where the butterflies aggregate in winter — stay higher in numbers, that’s a signal the population will not go extinct, he said. Often those places are in the Central Coast of California but roosts have been reported in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.
One place where they’ve been seen in great numbers is in the Pacific Palisades, Brown said. Monarchs also roost in eucalyptus trees, which are disappearing in Southern California.
While experts disagree on whether home butterfly-raising efforts are working, they are in agreement that more monarchs are a positive sign.
“It has been a pretty decent year for monarchs,” said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society in an interview last week. “In the West we saw a major uptick. Plus we see wonderful improvements in Mexico.
“It is such good news for us in the conservation movement. It’s something we don’t often see,” he said.
But one year’s surge is not conclusive evidence the butterfly is here to stay. Insect biologists say it usually takes at least five years of data to identify a trend. The western and eastern populations have been declining since the 1980s, when Xerces counted 4.5 million monarchs in western roosts, mostly along the California coast.
“I want to caution people that we are still quite a bit down,” Hoffman Black said.
Still, there are more monarchs flitting around yards, parks and drought-resistant landscapes, flying between healthy, native plants, some for breeding, others for their sweet nectar. Xerces reported the largest numbers since 2016. And that hasn’t gone unnoticed, not even to the casual observer in Southern California.
Joanne D’Antonio, of Valley Glen in the San Fernando Valley, had tried to save a stand of eucalyptus trees that were cut down near the Sunkist building in Sherman Oaks to make room for a housing project. “They are important in the migration of butterflies,” she said.
Vanderlip said she’s heard from many who are fighting an uphill battle with plants that die. And if they do grow, flies can swoop in and eat the caterpillars or the chrysalises.
Hoffman Black of Xerces was bullish on citizen planters creating monarch habitat. “Yes, it definitely helps. We need to plant milkweed, plant other flowering plants that monarchs love, too,” he said. “Then you can be part of the solution to save monarch butterflies from extinction.”
But studies show that pesticides used by farmers and home gardeners can break the ecological chain that produces monarchs. “If you have a yard, just don’t use pesticides,” he warned.
What makes the monarch butterfly more appealing to humans than other butterflies? Brown and others say it is their personality.
“They are one of the biggest butterflies. And they are not particularly shy. You can get close to them,” he said.
Price got hooked on breeding them while teaching at a school in Culver City that had a milkweed garden. The teachers and students would watch the butterflies emerge, then in a few moments, cling to their human partners as a kind of final embrace before escaping into the air.
“When they come out they are tame; you put them on your finger and they open their wings to dry,” she said.
Buying native milkweed
• Theodore Payne Foundation, 10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley, CA 91352. 818-768-1802. Online store: store.theodorepayne.org
• Santa Monica Mountains Native Plant Nursery at Rancho Sierra Vista, Newbury Park, CA. Contact: Santa Monica Mountains Fund, 401 West Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360. 805-370-2341. email: email@example.com
• Artemisia Nursery, 5068 Valley Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90032. 323-795-5515. email: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Sunset Boulevard Nursery, 4368 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90029. 323-661-1642. email: email@example.com
• Roger’s Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona Del Mar, CA 92625. 949-640-5800.
• Tree of Life Nursery, 33201 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675. 949-728-0685. firstname.lastname@example.org
• Parkview Nursery, 3841 Jackson St., Riverside, CA 92503. 951-351-6900