Helping hands for Missouri Monarchs

May 21, 2014

Swamp milkweed at Greenscape Gardens in west St. Louis County
Swamp milkweed at Greenscape Gardens in west St. Louis County
Credit Gary Grigsby / KBIA News

  Most of us are familiar with that icon of the insect world, the black and orange Monarch butterfly.

What you might not know is that Monarch numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate.  80 percent of the population gone in the past 15 years.  During the same time frame a 60 percent decline in the amount of milkweed growing out there on the great plains and in the Midwest.  There's a connection.  Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed in the summer and when the Monarch caterpillars hatch from those eggs, they eat the milkweed.  It's the only thing they eat.  

You might say the story of the Monarch is hopeless.  But when I began exploring what some folks in Missouri are doing to help save the Monarch butterfly, well, my attitude began to change.  This story has its ups and downs but in the end it's a story about hope.  

It was a cold afternoon in late March when I met Carol Davit who was busy greeting customers at a native plant sale in Jefferson City.  Davit is the Executive Director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation.  "There is tremendous potential for individuals like the people who are at this plant sale to make a positive change for Monarchs right where they live," Davit said.  

At the plant sale there were vendors selling milkweed and I was hoping to find someone who was buying it. The first person I found was Jessica Dugger of California, Missouri.  "So I am a big fan of nature.  So, save the Monarch butterfly!  The honey bees are having problems too so I figured if buying two plants helps, then why not?" 

It turns out the word is out on milkweed.  Nearly everyone I talked with at the plant sale was buying the stuff.  "This is one plant that will really bring 'em in.  And they will nurse off the plant," said Frank Stork of Jefferson City.  He said he and his wife already have milkweed growing on their property. He bought four more common milkweed plants at the sale.  "We are doing whatever we can to enhance the habitat for 'em."

Again, they're not alone.  Brent Scott from Callaway County said he came to the sale for the most part to buy milkweed.  "I've got a farm of 40 acres and so I am planting 15 plants this year of each species.  So maybe I will get some caterpillars, who knows?"

It's obvious the interest in people buying milkweed has gone up.  So has selling it.  Missouri Wildflowers Nursery out of Brazito had plenty of it on hand at the sale.  Nursery General Manager Michael Hoyle said it was not that many years ago that he would spend a lot of time at the nursery pulling hundreds of Monarch caterpillars off of some plants and moving them to milkweed to help them survive.  Not any more.  "We did not once have to pull caterpillars off plants last year.  That's dramatic," said Hoyle.  

My theme of hope for the future of Monarchs took a huge hit of truth after talking with Hoyle.  But that changed a bit about a week after the plant sale in Jefferson City.  Through word of mouth I heard about a nursery in west St. Louis County called Greenscape Gardens.  It was doing something that manager Jennifer Schamber said was its mission to help save the Monarch.  In late April she said the nursery began giving away 5,000 milkweed plants to their customers.  "Such a small effort needs to be made.  But when you multiply that by thousands upon thousands of gardeners, we can really make a difference in the host plant plant population."  

The Monarch faces some tough challenges in its effort to make it.  No doubt.  But in wrapping up this story I wanted to go back to the plant sale in Jefferson City where our story began.  It was something Amanda Centobie of  Boone County told me about why she was buying some milkweed.  "To give 'em something native to live on since their migration is being affected.  And we would like to see that.  I have kids and we would like to watch that come through our yard.  It would be kinda cool."

In my mind, nothing cooler.