Butterfly plants in short supply due to pandemic-fueled gardening boom
Local milkweed grower says public’s awareness of shrinking monarch population also a factor
Every spring for the past three years, Terry Meaney has eagerly awaited the magical dance of nature that takes place in her La Jolla backyard.
It begins when she buys and plants several new narrow-leaf milkweed and butterfly bush plants. Then she tends and inspects the plants every day, hoping to find new signs of insect life hiding under leaves or chewing on stems. Meaney is an avid butterfly gardener who relishes having a front-row patio seat to the miracle of metamorphosis that takes place each year between early March and late July.
But this year, Meaney has had a hard time setting up her egg-laying and feasting garden for the Western monarch butterflies that she loves. Milkweed and other butterfly-attracting plants have been in short supply all year at nurseries throughout San Diego County. One of the county’s biggest milkweed growers says there are two reasons for the shortage. The pandemic’s shelter-at-home order has fueled a boom in home gardening, and growing awareness about the plight of monarchs has led many home planters to add the butterfly-sustaining plants to their landscapes.
“It’s a fleeting beautiful thing but really delightful,” Meaney said. “I’m so lucky to be able to see them up close from my kitchen window. It’s fun. I feel like I’m helping.”
At Moosa Creek Nursery in Valley Center, co-founder Su Kraus said she and her office staff have joked that they should simply answer the phone every time it rings with the words “Milkweed hot line” because that’s all customers seem to be calling about this year.
“We have certainly had a huge number of calls from homeowners,” Kraus said. “People are trying to do the right thing.”
Kraus and her husband, Hank, started Moosa Creek in 2004. They grow more than 400 California native species on about seven acres. They are one of San Diego County’s largest suppliers of milkweed and other pollinator plants to landscapers and commercial garden centers like the Walter Andersen, El Plantio and Green Thumb nurseries.
Kraus said she began noticing a rise in demand for milkweed plants between 2018 and 2019 so she began growing more but could never keep up with demand. In 2018, she grew just under 1,000 narrow-leaf milkweed plants. In 2019, she grew about 1,800 plants. This year, she has grown about 2,500 plants and next year, she’ll increase the amount by another 30 percent.
“No matter how much we grow, there’s still not enough,” Kraus said. “The monarch support groups have been doing a marvelous job of explaining the decline of the Western monarch and publicizing the need to help boost the population. Then the fact that people are staying home and gardening due to the coronavirus, they’re discovering why they should be planting native milkweeds.”
The migratory Western monarch butterfly population has been in sharp decline over the past 20 years, according to Butterfly Farms, a nonprofit education and conservation organization based in Encinitas. The decline has been attributed to various sources, which include the gradual loss of breeding habitats, herbicides and extreme weather events, such as rising temperatures, heavy rains and drought.
Biologists at Washington State University and other research institutions reported last summer that the population of migratory Western monarchs declined by 99 percent from the 1980s to 2019. The current population, estimated to be around 30,000, is considered to be on the “quasi-extinction threshold.” To save the species, the researchers recommended restoring and protecting the monarchs’ overwintering and migratory habitats in California.
Fortunately, wildlife education programs in California K-12 schools have encouraged the planting of milkweed and other pollinator plants that attract both butterflies and bees, whose populations have also been decimated in recent decades. That’s how Meaney learned about butterfly gardening. Before she retired in 2014, she taught grade-schoolers for 14 years, including second- through fifth-graders at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in south San Diego.
“While I was teaching at Chavez, a friend planted milkweed in a garden there and I was seeing the magic happen when the butterflies found it,” she said.
About five years ago, Meaney planted a vegetable garden in her backyard, but gophers, birds and other critters consumed all of her harvest before she and her husband, Mike, had a chance to enjoy it. So after two years of lost crops, she decided that if she was going to garden edible plants, she’d rather feed endangered monarchs because at least then she could enjoy the show.
In past years, Meaney said she could always find the native narrow-leaf milkweed that Western monarchs prefer at the nurseries where she shops, including Walter Andersen in Point Loma, Green Gardens in Pacific Beach and Home Depot in Clairemont. But this year, every place she visited was sold out. When she’d call ahead for plants, nursery staff would warn her to get there by 10 a.m. or the supply would be gone. Some nurseries limited customers to just two milkweed plants in 1-gallon containers. Meaney said the plants need to be replaced every other year because they get eaten down so quickly.
Monarchs spend the summer and fall months in the Pacific Northwest, Colorado and New Mexico then migrate to California and Central Mexico for the winter and spring. Meaney said she usually spots the eggs, which monarchs lay on the leaves of milkweed plants, in the late winter. They hatch into distinctively striped larva, or caterpillars, that voraciously devour the plant until they’re ready to transform into a chrysalis, the cocoon-like pod in which they metamorphose into a butterfly.
Meaney said she’s become fiercely protective of her backyard butterfly nursery. To protect the newly hatched caterpillars from parasitic tachnid flies, she gathers them up and puts them in a special screened butterfly cage where they can grow fat on milkweed and mature into butterflies without fear of predators. The monthslong process has been rewarding for her in many ways.
“I can predict that all of this nurturing of milkweed and the monarchs will see a tremendous boost to the Monarch population this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t happening in many California cities,” she said.
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