Bring on the Monarchs!

Bring on the Monarchs!

Exciting News!

The milkweed is up in my garden at home and the gardens at school! Here are some photographs from yesterday.

Common Milkweed
Milkweed at school May 15, 2018
Common Milkweed Spring 2018
Common Milkweed germinating in lavender that was killed off during last winter.
Milkweed germinating Spring 2018
I Spy Milkweed, Can You?
Common MIlkweed Sprouting in Home Monarch Habitat
Common Milkweed Germinating Spring 2018 (5/15/18)

Mother Nature Provides

Milkweed erupts in the spring prior to the arrival of the Monarchs. This is Mother Nature’s way of ensuring that once the Butterflies arrive from their Journey Northward (migrating north from Mexico each spring), there are adequate plants for the Monarch to lay their eggs upon. Milkweed is the only plant that sustains the monarch life cycle. Adults lay their eggs, typically, on the underside of the milkweed leaves. Once the caterpillar emerges from the egg, after 1-4 days, it eats its own eggshell first (high in protein) and then proceeds to eat the leaves of the milkweed plant. The larval or caterpillar stage lasts 10-14 days, during which time the caterpillar will increase in size many times, causing it to shed its skin (molt) five different times during that stage of the life cycle.

If you want to plant milkweed in your yard, there are many sources.  Please note that while some claim they are “Free” there does seem to be a postage/handling/or gratuity fee. Read each source carefully. In addition, only milkweed native to your area of the country should be planted. Some sources are:

Monarch Watch Milkweed Market

Live Monarch Free Milkweed Seeds

Xerces Society Milkweed Seed Finder

Really Free Common Milkweed Seeds

In addition if you leave a contact email in the comments, I would be happy to send you some of my own, locally sourced common milkweed seeds. I have saved these seeds from my own gardens in the upper mid-west. Currently, I only have common milkweed seeds but in the future might be able to offer rose milkweed and swamp milkweed.  By leaving your email, you are agreeing to let me contact you to acquire an address to which I can send the seeds. United States residents only, please. I probably can supply the first ten people who respond as instructed above with common milkweed seeds that have been cold stratified and are ready for planting. Are you willing to help plant milkweed in your yard? It has been estimated that  over ONE BILLION additional stems of milkweed is what is needed to sustain the monarchs.

Citizen Science & Reporting Observations

Observing for milkweed in my garden each spring has become a ritual for me. Later today, I will act as a citizen scientist and report my findings to Journey North. I think my sighting this year is earlier than the last few years. It has been an odd spring.  But, the nice thing about the Journey North records is that one can track back to see what your prior year’s observations were.

I look forward to the Monarch’s arrival to the habitat I have lovingly prepared for them. I hope you join me on my journey of monarch conservation as I report my observations for this season!

Harvesting Milkweed

Harvesting Milkweed

Earlier this week I saw a post from the US Fish and WildLife Service about collecting milkweed seeds. Since I have done this before, both as an individual, and a student group facilitator, I believe it is an important thing to do and this is the time of year to do it! The video is interesting but it ended up being about collecting milkweed seeds on a large scale; the home gardener would not have the equipment necessary to free the seeds from the silk, as is shown in the USFWS video. They do acknowledge this through giving some brief tips on what the home gardener interested in milkweed seed saving can do.

In the interest of providing yet another view, one that has worked for me since I started collecting seeds in 2014, I thought I would post the steps I take to collect and preserve milkweed seeds.

  1. Access your milkweed patch. I have three such patches in my yard – one common milkweed, one swamp milkweed, and one of rose milkweed. Make sure you have permission to pick the seed pods if the plants are not on your property.
  2.  Make sure the pods are dried. You can check this by looking at their color, which should be brown, not green, and whether or not they have started to split open. The pods that have already split open will easily come free of their seeds and silk, at even the gentlest touch, but are showing you they are getting ready for dispersal. Harvesting pods that have been drying on the stems of the plant will decrease the chance of mold forming, once they are stored.
  3. Pick the entire pod off of the stem and put it in a large container. I reuse ice cream and cookie dough buckets for this purpose.  Vent the tops of the container by poking several holes through the top.
  4. Place the container of seed pods in a cool, dark place for the winter. I just keep them in my garage on a shelf.
  5. In the spring, you can remove the pods, place the top back on the container and simply shake to separate the silk from the seed.

In recent presentations, I have been asking children why they think the silk is attached to the seed. Unfortunately, most do not know.  It is there to help the seed travel and find a new place to settle and germinate. If you watch any milkweed patch in mid-to-late fall, on a windy day, you can see this in action! Or, you can watch my YouTube video on it.


Overwintering the seeds, either by letting them disperse naturally, or by collecting and storing in a cold place provides a needed stratification period for milkweed. Some plant seeds, including the milkweed species of plants, need a cold stratification period of several weeks to ready them to germinate in the spring. Your refrigerator can be used for this if you are not going to plant until spring. If you buy seeds, make sure they have received this cold stratification period.

Finally, even after you plant your milkweed seeds, you will need to be patient.


Sometimes, it takes several years for the seeds to germinate. But, once they do, you will quickly have a growing milkweed patch of your own, from which you can collect seeds.

Sharing seeds is the fun part! Make sure you only share seeds that are disease free (from a disease free patch and that are native to your area of the country). From the seeds I have saved, an entire section of fourth grade (3 classes) planted in the spring of 2016, neighbors and friends were given seeds, and 180 first graders were given seeds this fall.

A demonstration prop I made containing milkweed seeds and silk, travels with me to my presentations on monarchs and milkweed. I call it my excitement jar.  It has proved to be a great teaching tool to show students the beauty and potential of milkweed seeds.

Lastly, in the fall of 2014 my garden club students and I harvested seed pods from the butterfly garden at school. Monarch Watch had put out a call for milkweed seeds. This was a great service learning project in which we only had to pick the pods and send them to an organization that would then separate the silk and disseminate the seeds to areas in need of milkweed.  Check their website to see if they are doing that again and how you can help. Monarch Watch Website.

The scary part of the milkweed topic is that a group of researchers have determined that over 1 billion, 1.6 billion additonal NEW stems, to be exact, of this plant are needed to sustain the monarch population and keep it from extinction. One point six BILLION additonal stems! Yikes! They have called for All Hands on Deck!  The research is presented in this IOPScience article publisheed earlier this year. Be prepared to read some dire consequences about the monarch and milkweed.

If you plant milkweed, whether from seed you saved, obtained from a friend, bought, or received free, you are helping this effort. Thank you for being a needed participant in saving the monarch!

Monarch Activities in August

Monarch Activities in August

One of my son’s friends tells him I am always “shouting” about butterflies on my social media pages. Shouting might be a bit of an over-exaggeration, but I do have regular posts on this iconic species.  I have been involved in Monarch Conservation for almost 15 years now, long before it became a popular thing to do or say you are doing.  Raising monarchs during the summer has become part of my life, a part I have learned to share with others in order to educate, inspire, and call to act.

As you might know from prior posts, the summer started slow with my first Monarch Butterfly sighting being after the July 4th holiday! This is very late for the upper mid-west and had me concerned. I found one monarch caterpillar in June, raised and released it as an adult butterfly. And, although this told me monarchs had been visiting my yard, I had not seen any flying about until early July.

Mid-July, I spoke at the Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge on Monarchs, Monarch Habitat, Milkweed, and the Monarch Highway – which is being enabled in states adjacent to ours but not within.  Sharing knowledge is part of the Master Gardener’s mission, so this fits well with my passion for the Monarch.

Shortly after that talk, I began to find monarch eggs in my garden – mostly on my common milkweed patch. I have never had good luck with raising monarchs from eggs, but I felt desperate to get my adopted summer family growing, so I collected ten tiny, pale yellow orbs – the eggs of the Monarch. On August first, I left on vacation, leaving my eggs to be watched by my adolescent boys and their Aunt. A week later, upon returning home, I still had ten eggs! Whoo-hoo! I was very excited. And, I think my sister-in-law was relieved.

As those eggs started to hatch, I started to find more caterpillars of various instars (size stages) in my milkweed patches. I brought those in as well, separating them from the ten tiny caterpillars that were rapidly growing.  As of Monday, this week, nine of the ten egg raised monarchs had pupated, eclosed, tagged, and released.  Out of the other caterpillars I found, 8 are now pupating and one is getting ready to do so.  Inspired by another monarch enthusiast, I looked on my plants again yesterday to find 3 tiny caterpillars on my rose milkweed, one on my swamp milkweed, and one larger caterpillar on my common milkweed.  I brought those in to join my growing family that resides in the laundry room.

Monarch Caterpillars on three types of Milkweed: L-R: Rose, Swamp seed Pod, and Common. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2017

My aim is to use all 25 tags I purchased from Monarch Watch earlier this month.  This is the third year I have tagged, and my most successful year raising monarchs from eggs.

Monarch Watch Envelope

Lastly, I have been able to make plans to do more sharing of my knowledge of the Monarch Life Cycle and their habitat needs in the coming year.  If all goes well, I will be reaching more people in our community – both children and adults, alike – with my Monarch message and mission to help sustain this iconic creature.

Monarch Update Yields Hope

Monarch Update Yields Hope

Today, is the Monarch Monitoring Blitz hosted by Monarch Joint Venture. I came across a posting on social media that reminded me of this citizen science event.  Having raised monarchs for 14 years, I definitely feel the need to participate in the reporting activities of this weekend.

Just to set the stage, this summer I did not see a monarch until after the July 4th weekend. I had found one caterpillar toward the end of June that told me Monarchs had visited, but until that holiday weekend, I hadn’t seen my orange and black friends float by on a breeze. To date, I have only been able to release one butterfly.  I can tell, without the use of any statistics, the numbers are down.

But, yesterday, after seeing a Monarch fly by three or four times, or possibly three or four monarchs fly by, I saw the post by The University of Minnesota’s Monarch Lab Monitoring Project. Essentially, it is asking “regular” citizens or lay-people, or non-scientists to go out this weekend and look for Monarch eggs or larvae (caterpillars).

So, since I consider myself to be a monarch conservationist and have participated in many citizen science activities regarding monarchs and milkweed, I headed outside after dinner to check out my milkweed patches. This really is not an unusual activity for me, I have been checking my milkweed for the last 14 summers! Usually, I have raised and released over 15 monarchs by this time in the summer. As I have already noted, it has been slow. I did not harbor much hope of finding eggs or caterpillars. Yet, I did have that adult monarch (or those adult monarchs) flying around my deck before dinner.

I thought about waiting to look. After all, I had just looked two days ago and found nothing but aging milkweed plants. And, the monitoring blitz wasn’t starting until today. But, I went ahead and read what information they were seeking from community observers (citizen scientists) such as myself and decided to look.

Within five minutes I was back in the house, proudly showing my teens a monarch egg I had found. Two minutes later, I had found four more. And ten minutes after that, another five! Ten monarch eggs! All found on common milkweed leaves in the patch facing South next to my garage – in an area of about 225 square feet, encompassing about 32 plants. I was ecstatic!


For one thing, I have never been good at finding eggs. But, these had been super easy to find!  All but one were on the underside of tender, newly sprouted milkweed leaves. I made note of this observation. One leaf had 3 eggs on it. Each of the other eggs were laid upon single leaves – kind of what is expected. One egg was found laid on the top side of the leaf – somewhat unusual. And one egg was so hard to determine if it was an egg because it was near a margin of a leaf that had already been chewed, dried, and was curled on itself. Luckily, I have a great pair of magnifying glasses, which I use to do fine work on my jewelry,  and broke those out to inspect not only this egg but all of them!

Ten eggs – the night before the monitoring blitz started! Ten eggs – a great number with which to work as it will be easy to determine morbidity and mortality statistics, without causing any mathematical difficulties. Ten eggs – all photographed. Ten eggs – checked and rechecked this morning. Ten eggs – hopefully, soon to be te caterpillars!

I feel fortunate to be able to contribute this information to the scientists working hard to ensure the survival of the monarch species.  I have hope.



Four Monarchs for the Fourth!

Four Monarchs for the Fourth!

On June 30th, last Friday, I saw my first Monarch of the season! It was at our cabin in the Northwoods of Wisconsin! I have a perennial bed with common milkweed for the caterpillars and nectar plants like purple cone flowers for the adult butterflies. The monarch was flitting from plant to plant!  Later, after my excitement calmed down, I was able to find a tiny caterpillar on those same plants!


The next day, on our morning walk, I found a bigger caterpillar on a milkweed plant alongside the dirt road on which we were strolling before seven o’clock in the morning! Both caterpillars were carefully collected and given plenty of milkweed leaves on which to munch. They made the ride home with us on Monday. Usually, I have enough caterpillars at our house to satisfy my need to raise monarchs. This year, I have only found one in my main gardens. It is now in the third stage of the Monarch Life Cycle, or the Chrysalis (the pupa). It is in this stage that the metamorphosis takes place from caterpillar to butterfly!


On July 4th, I was working in my gardens and saw four monarchs throughout the day! Or maybe, it was one monarch I saw four times! I am hoping it was the previous occurence and more than one had returned to my yard! It was a welcome sight, indeed!

Since it is July, one or two months of monarchs have already completed their life cycle. In August, I will again send to Monarch Watch to obtain tags in which to apply to the monarchs I raise and/or catch during that month. This is the generation which will travel an amazing 1,700 miles from my home to central Mexico to overwinter. Last year, I tagged 15 monarchs. I doubt I will have that many this year. But, I can hope. Maybe the season is just off to a slow start!

For more information, please see the downloadable PDF from Monarch Joint Venture on raising Monarchs responsibly.