The Miracle Butterfly

The Monarch is probably the best known of all North American butterflies, and for good reason. This beautiful butterfly is the only insect known to make true north-south annual migrations as birds do. Western Monarchs fly from Canada all the way to the Central California Coast to spend the winter in the very grove of trees that their forefathers migrated from. This is remarkable because they can navigate unerringly to a place they have never seen before. Scientists have said that this system shows a greater level of navigational technology than that which guided men to the moon, yet it is all packed into a brain no bigger than a pin head! The level of design and engineering revealed here demands creation by an overwhelmingly great intelligence. What's more amazing is that all the information for this navigational system has to be passed on to the next generations, who of course have never flown the route before.

Unfortunately, according to many sources, monarchs no longer migrate through northwestern Oregon. We at Good News Gardening believe this can change and you can help be a part of it. You see, Monarch's are restricted to laying their eggs only on milkweed plants which their caterpillars feed on. Milkweed has a toxin in it which is passed on to the adult butterfly which is distasteful to birds, affording the butterflies some measure of protection. Sadly, land development and weed control programs in the Willamette Valley and the Mid-Columbia have critically reduced milkweed numbers. We believe with others that if we re-establish native milkweed populations for Monarchs, we will once again be on their migratory path.

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Raise plants, collect seed, give them away, and encourage others to plant them. There are two gorgeous milkweed plants native to the Mid-Columbia. One is the narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) which likes drier conditions. The other is showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) which is pictured and packaged here. It likes moderate garden moisture. Both species have beautiful flowers that are great nectar sources for many kinds of butterflies including monarchs.

After the first year, showy milkweed will flower every year in June and July. The pink and white flowers are followed by fairly large seed pods which begin to ripen in September. This beautiful perennial is 36 - 50 inches tall and is native to almost the entire U.S. In Oregon and Washington plant seeds outdoors in the fall, or cold treat them for spring or summer planting. Seeds planted outdoors in the fall will usually germinate in April or May when the soil warms up.

To jump start your plants, plant them indoors in the spring as you would peppers or tomatoes. Like peppers or tomatoes, milkweed loves warm temperatures to germinate and grow. Unlike peppers and tomatoes, the seeds need a period of cold treatment before they will germinate. To cold treat you can plant them in the fall outside in flats of seed starting mix or directly into 2 inch peat pots or cell inserts. Or you can cold treat them indoors to simulate the cool moist winter environment; mix the seed with damp (not wet) sand or seed starting mix (or simply place the seeds between moist paper towels) and place them in a Ziploc bag and keep in refrigerator for 6 weeks or more.

I prefer to start seeds indoors in propagation trays bout 2 months before conditions outdoors would permit setting out peppers or tomatoes. 1½-2 inch size cells work well and are easier to keep moist than peat pots. Plant 2-3 seeds in each pot approx ¼ inch deep. They should germinate in 7-10 days if they are maintained between 70 and 80 degrees F. Soil should be kept moist but not wet. Transplant seedlings 1-2 feet apart in a sunny location.

John Hergenrather
Good News Gardening

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Other Resources to check out


  • Answers in Genesis: The Magnificent Migrating Monarch
  • ICR: Female Monarch Butterfly's Needles Designed for Survival
  • ICR: Design Features for the Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle

  • Websites:
  • Xerces Society
  • North American Butterfly Species
  • Oregon Milkweed Project
  • The Milkweed Farm
  • Swallowtail Farms