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Monarch Migration: More Than Milkweed

Every fall, millions of monarchs make their way down to the equator to flee the harsh winter conditions that would await them up north. On their journey down to Mexico, however, they need to make quite a few pit stops to fuel up on nectar. While you may have heard that milkweed is an essential piece to the puzzle of monarch conservation, equally as important are the main sources that sustain the adults during migration – fall-blooming nectar flowers.

Learn more: Want to learn more about gardening for butterflies? Check out this full guide to butterfly gardening in Western NC and Upstate SC.

Why Fall-blooming flowers?

Fall-blooming flowers provide a source of nectar for adult monarchs migrating down south for the winter. While milkweed is the only plant that monarchs can lay eggs on and the only plant that monarch caterpillars can eat, once the adult butterflies have emerged, they sustain themselves on nectar. That’s why we need nectar-rich fall-blooming plants. The timing of the bloom is key, because the monarchs can’t feed on the nectar of flowers that aren’t blooming. Ideally, it is best to plant multiple flowers with differing bloom times so that monarchs have a consistent source of nectar at all times.

Monarch Butterfly by Ron Holmes/USFWS

What to Plant

Nectar-rich and fall-blooming flowers are the key to supporting the monarch migration. It is also beneficial to plant native flowers, as they tend to be easier to maintain (and better for the local ecosystem).

The best part? According to Conserving Carolina’s Torry Nergart, almost all of the monarch-preferred flowers are typically readily available on the market, such as at local garden or home improvement stores. Torry offers his personal experience with monarchs and fall-blooming flowers, suggesting that:

“Some years I think I see a preference by the monarchs, all I have is anecdote. The Swamp Aster (Symphotrichum puniceum) I think is preferred just because it can be ahem, let’s say, “abundant” where it’s allowed to grow. Most organizations won’t recommend planting it as it’s a little aggressive, but it grows well in ditch lines and abandoned places.”

Some additional monarch-preferred flowers include:

  • Blackeyed Susan
  • Narrow-leaved Sunflowers
  • Smooth Blue Aster
  • Wreath Goldenrod
  • Cosmos (not native, but beneficial to plant)
  • Zinnia (also not native, also beneficial to plant)

For a full list of fall-blooming nectar plants, check out this Monarch Nectar Plant Guide from the Xerces Society.

Also, if you’re looking for native plants in Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina, here are some tips on where to get them. 

How to Plant

To attract the most monarchs to your yard, it is beneficial to plant flowers in clusters of the same species. Try to also select a diverse array of flowers that have consecutive blooming periods, as this will provide a consistent source of nectar for migrating monarchs.

Monarch on common milkweed
Monarch on common milkweed

When to Plant

Although fall-blooming flowers may be on your mind now, they typically need to be planted in spring or early summer. To attract the spectacle of the monarch migration to your own yard, you can start by planning out your spring planting based on the recommended plant list from above. If you plan your garden out accordingly, this time next year you could have the spectacular monarch extravaganza in your own backyard – all while contributing to the conservation of this valuable, declining species.

To find out more extensive detail on how to create the most ideal monarch habitat, check out the Monarch Waystation Program and join over 35,000 others who have turned their backyards into monarch habitats.

Interested in improving habitat where you live? We offer seasonal tips on how to make your yard and home a better habitat for native plants, animals, and insects. Explore more Habitat at Home topics here. You can also sign up for Conserving Carolina emails to get the latest Habitat at Home columns in your inbox. 

 Author Allison Houtz is serving as an AmeriCorps Project Conserve Communications and Education Associate with Conserving Carolina. 

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