Tag Archives: monarch butterflies

Tikorangi Notes: Friday 19 June, 2015

017I have a new camera and while I am still learning to use it, I doubt that I could have captured the monarchs on the montanoa with my old one, even before it decided to shuffle off the mortal coils and go where digital cameras go to die. I mentioned the Mexican tree daisy last week, asking for identification. Such are the wonders of the internet, it took less than 20 minutes for the botanical name to be supplied to me – Montanoa bipinnatifida. I am attempting to commit this to memory, although I keep getting sidetracked onto bipolar manatees which won’t do at all.
024It was a comment left on this site that had me heading down to check out the montanoa on a sunny mid-winter’s day, to find it positively dancing with monarch butterflies. “It’s a natural food source for monarch butterflies, as it also comes from Mexico”, the reader said. Given that monarchs are recorded as self-introducing to this country around 1840 and generally produce two generations a year, that means at least 350 generations have passed since the Mexican connection so I think the montanoa is perhaps better described as being an “indigenous food source for monarch butterflies in Mexico”. But a source of winter nectar, it certainly is. It was a joy to see.

The felling of the Waitara riverside pohutukawa yesterday – the ones that we had fought so hard to save – followed by heavy rain today have thwarted my plans to complete the clean-up on the second block of large Kurume azaleas that I also mentioned last week. But as I hauled away multiple barrow-loads of prunings, it occurred to me that the spending of maybe two weeks’ sustained work to complete a task that nobody else (other than Mark) will even notice has been done, represents fairly high level gardening skills. For much has actually been done. It is greatly improved but there is little evidence to show that.

From the point of view of the gardener, the hard hack and slash approach may be more rewarding in the short term – you can see exactly what you have done and it is a quick result. But as far as the garden goes, a gentler technique which leaves the overall scene refined but visually similar, masking how much has been taken out, is a different skill set. There is “cutting back” and then there is what I have heard called “blind pruning” – which is cutting back without leaving a visible trail of destruction. It takes more time and skill but is worth the effort for intensively managed areas of the garden.
056I was so discouraged when I left the scene of institutional and bureaucratic vandalism that was the Waitara pohutukawa that I had to take refuge in scenes of nature that are beyond the reach of the desecrators. I have been enjoying the sight of red hot pokers (kniphofia) on the road verges. Just an African plant that has adapted to its role as a roadside wild flower in New Zealand – a bright splash of colour in the gloom.
109And at home I raised my eyes upwards to drink in the sights of our trees. We have many large trees here, evergreen and deciduous, native and introduced. While by no means the largest of our trees, this scene of magnolias, silver birch and Queen Palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana) soothed my soul.

I admit I probably took eleventy thousand photos of the monarchs this week

I admit I probably took eleventy thousand photos of the monarchs this week

Keeping our monarchs at home

Joe Pye weed is a handy source of nectar for the monarch butterflies. We have always known Joe Pye as a eupatorium but it has now been renamed Eutrochium purpureum

Joe Pye weed is a handy source of nectar for the monarch butterflies. We have always known Joe Pye as a eupatorium but it has now been renamed Eutrochium purpureum

March is the month when we become aware that the days are shortening and night temperatures cooling but autumn? Not yet, at least not in North Taranaki where we drift ever so slowly from season to season. But every year, the same pressure comes on – the plight of the monarch butterflies.March is the start of the critical period. We have monarchs on the wing twelve months of the year in our garden. To a large extent, that is because we take active steps to guard the late season caterpillars. These are the ones that will chrysalis and hatch out as conditions for them grow more difficult. Given the short life span of a monarch butterfly – usually only a month, the internet tells me – it is these late season candidates which will winter over and guarantee continuance through next summer.

In North America monarchs migrate vast distances to over-winter in the mountains of Mexico but our monarchs are not as determined and will stay at home. Occasionally we find a tree where many are clustered together and it is truly a small wonder in our world to see them stretching and flexing their wings in what little warmth there is on a sunny winter’s morning. More often, we will see raggedy specimens bravely feeding from seasonal plants. The so-called Edgeworthia papyrifera (yellow daphne) can be an astounding sight in August. The key to keeping our monarchs close to home is year-round food supplies, which means plenty of flowers with visible stamens and pollen which are a fair indicator of available nectar.

Swan plants are the food source for monarch caterpillars

Swan plants are the food source for monarch caterpillars

No doubt many readers are currently suffering the seasonal anxiety of stripped swan plants and a surfeit of caterpillars at all stages of development. The caterpillars are very selective about food sources. Basically they need swan plants. We always knew these as Asclepias fruticosa but I see they have now been reclassified as Gomphocarpus fruticosus for the common one and G. physocarpus for the giant swan plant and I can’t commit either of those names to my memory. You can – and we have in the past – get medium and large caterpillars to chrysalis-size on slices of pumpkin but you have to confine them because they will head off looking for their preferred food source given the opportunity. Is there anything as brave as the sight of a procession of monarch caterpillars heading away in search of more food?

Nowadays we try and reserve plants for late season caterpillars, covering them with netting and taking steps to rid them of the nasty yellow aphid that can decimate the plants. There is a specific aphid spray that does not harm the caterpillars when infestations are really bad. Both Yates and Tui have organic products that target mites, whitefly and aphids. Later in the season, Mark will start his chrysalis rescue programme, carefully tying them with cotton to suspend them safely because they can rarely hatch successfully if lying on the ground.

We are working to establish the admirals in the garden, seen here feeding from Lycoris aurea last autumn

We are working to establish the admirals in the garden, seen here feeding from Lycoris aurea last autumn

We are finally getting patches of stinging nettle established. The only reason for this is to encourage the admirals, both red and yellow, to move into our garden. It is not our large native tree nettle – Urtica ferox – but one of the dwarf ones which has turned up which we are allowing to stay. Unlike the monarchs, which are self-introduced to this country and were first recorded around 1840, our brand of red admirals are truly indigenous and not found anywhere else in the world. Because their host plant is not as obliging and hospitable as the monarch’s swan plant, they need all the help we can give them. That said, there was a news item that came through at the start of this year reporting that the US Fish and Wildlife Service is taking steps to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act. Loss of habitat and modern farming methods have caused a massive drop in the monarch population and there are fears that, without intervention, they may die out.

Some utilitarians may ask what useful contribution butterflies make to human life. It is true that there their direct contribution does not equal that of bees. But as gardeners, most of us set out to cultivate transient and ephemeral blooms for no other reason than that they are beautiful and bring delight. Butterflies are beauties of the insect world and their continued presence is a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem.

New Zealand has an active Monarch Butterfly Trust with a comprehensive website. While the obliging monarch is their main focus, they cover the whole range of butterflies found in New Zealand (which is not large by international standards) and they touch on the moths (which are considerably more numerous here but less appealing to most people). You will find answers to many specific problems on that site. While the obliging monarch is their main focus, the site has information on a whole range of butterflies found in New Zealand, which is not large by international standards, and they touch on the moths, which are considerably more numerous here…but perhaps less appealing to most people.

???????????????????????????????First published in March issue of New Zealand Gardener magazine and reprinted here with their permission.

About the butterflies and the bees

Single flowers like the white cosmos and semi doubles like the aster provide pollen and nectar

Single flowers like the white cosmos and semi doubles like the aster provide pollen and nectar

Were my Mark to have his life over again, he might equally choose to be a meteorologist or a lepidopterist instead of a plant breeder. But as he only has the one life, he is destined to remain merely a weather-watching butterfly enthusiast. It is butterflies this week.

As a country, we are a bit deficient in the butterfly stakes. Moths we have a-plenty and very beautiful many are but the jewel colours of butterflies are in short supply. I have even seen Mark, in a fan club of one, admire the fluttering of cabbage whites around the summer garden.

When he found a beautiful Blue Moon years ago, he became very excited and tried to make a home for it. I have only just looked it up and informed him that his Blue Moon was a male and could never have laid the eggs he hoped for. The females are modest brown but the male was gorgeous. We figured at the time that the Blue Moon had been blown over from Australia but I see they are now to be found in parts of this country so maybe they will turn up here to enrich our lives at some stage. Plant portulaca, though it needs to be the right one.

A stinging nettle turned up in a prominent spot of the veg garden this summer and we are pleased. It can stay and we may encourage a bigger patch of them to form because that is what is needed to bring in the admiral butterflies. We know next door but two had red admirals and was working on yellow admirals last year so we are optimistic. It is just a shame their host plant is so off-putting.

Monarchs, the most rewarding common butterfly on offer in this country

Monarchs, the most rewarding common butterfly on offer in this country

Essentially it is the monarchs which are the most rewarding of all and which have become part of our way of life here. The earlier obsession that saw Mark successionally sow swan plants by the kilometre (I am not exaggerating – I paced out his rows one summer) have passed. These days we have plants seeding down and naturalising with just a bit of topping up from fresh seed as required.

Nasty yellow aphids

Nasty yellow aphids

Nasty yellow aphids are an ongoing issue. They suck the sap from plants and can weaken them to the point of death. After trying various ways to control these critters, Mark is pleased to report that there is a spray that works. It kills the aphids without harming the caterpillars. Nature’s Way, a product from Yates. It is not organic, despite its reassuring name, but it is targeted and appears to be safe to use. Nature’s Way is a fatty based spray. In his capacity as my in-house technical advisor, he thinks that the organic canola oil-based Eco Spray from Tui should also work in a similar manner. Both sprays will need repeat applications every few weeks to achieve control. If you only have one plant and are vigilant, you can probably squash the aphids (digital control) but that is not practical on larger plantings or out of control infestations.

It is not the caterpillars that have exerted the greatest influence over our gardening here. Leaving swan plants to seed down in corners around the garden is the easy part. It is the next step – food for the butterflies.

The fashion for minimalist gardens (so last century now) which has morphed into the clean lines of prestigious modern landscaping using large swathes of the same plant in monochromatic monocultures, is one of the unfriendliest types of gardening as far as butterflies, bees and insects are concerned. Most insects need nectar and pollen and that means flowers with visible stamens. Green, sculpted gardens don’t do it.

If you follow the British garden media, you will have noticed a very strong drive to promote gardening which supports eco systems rather than imposing unfriendly garden styles on nature.

Single and semi double blooms offer the most to both bees and butterflies

Single and semi double blooms offer the most to both bees and butterflies

All this means flowers, particularly single and semi double flowers. A single flower form has one row of petals arrayed around a sunny centre of stamens which usually means pollen and nectar. A semi double has two rows of petals so looks to be a fuller flower but still has that life supporting centre. Full double flowers only have petals visible and are of very limited or no value at all to insects, including our butterflies and bees. This is not to say you should shun double flowers. You just need to make sure that you have a good representation of singles and semi doubles as well.

Generally, there is plenty in bloom during spring and early summer. We target flowers for summer, autumn and winter to keep the butterflies around. If you lack the food for them, they will just fly away. These days our vegetable patches are a major mix of flowers and produce. This tumble of plants may not appeal to ultra tidy gardeners, but our patch is full of bees and butterflies and many lesser appreciated but valuable insects. We are also factoring in the need for food for butterflies and bees in the ornamental gardens.

You know you are succeeding when you get monarch butterflies wintering over in your garden and when you have plenty of bees buzzing busily. Not only is it better for the balance within nature, it adds vitality to the garden.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Wildlife in the garden – New Zealand style

Spot the gecko - a rare sight in New Zealand

Spot the gecko - a rare sight in New Zealand

As we sat outside having our morning coffee last Sunday, Mark commented that he had counted five native wood pigeons in the gum tree. Now there is nothing unusual about one or two kereru around here but five is close to a crowd for these birds who do not make a practice of hanging out together. As we watched, another two or three flew in to join them, followed by more, and then some. And but wait there were still more. We ended up with fifteen of these large and cumbersome but beautiful birds in our gum tree. A convention, we decided. They must be having a convention of local kereru. These are not birds renowned for having great brains and clearly their concentration spans are of short duration because they soon decided that it was time to break for morning tea. They flew over, more or less as a flock, to sample the offerings on the karaka tree. A quick snack and it was time for a field trip to a nearby pine tree from where they gradually dispersed. It made for a memorable coffee break.

Our native wood pigeon or kereru in the Ficus antiarus

Our native wood pigeon or kereru in the Ficus antiarus

As far as we know, our kereru stick around the area all year. Give them enough to eat and there is not a lot of point in them moving on. If you do a search for plants to grow for kereru, most sites list native plants including puriri and miro and only give exotic or introduced plants as an afterthought. But, like most of our native birds, kereru are untroubled by political correctness and they browse widely. They are gloriously untroubled by whether the food is nasty privet berries or nikau seeds. All that matters is that they are herbivores so they eat berries, seeds, fruit, flowers and leaves. In late autumn they come in close to eat the apple leaves just before leaf drop at a time when the sugars are concentrated. They are very partial to guavas and, apparently, to plums. Mark has watched them eating the kawakawa (pepper tree) berries, they raid the karaka tree, the flowering cherries, kowhai blossom and a host of other food sources. Being large birds which tend to crash land rather than being light of wing and foot, they feed from trees and shrubs which can hold their weight. You don’t see these birds on the ground, so they are not going to feed from annuals or perennials.

The delight for Mark this week was to find his first ever live gecko in the garden. In fact he has only ever seen one dead one before and that was in his glasshouse. In the lizard family, New Zealand only has skinks and geckos – the former are relatively common but the latter are rarely sighted. This particular gecko was presumably trying to warm itself on the trunk of a very old pine tree. Now that we have our eye in for this extraordinarily well camouflaged creature, we have found it out sunbathing in the same spot each day since so it is presumably resident. It now has to get accustomed to Mark bringing every visitor to stare at this rare sight and to make admiring noises even if they can’t tell it apart from the pine bark.

We did a bit of a Google search on NZ geckos which appear to be devilishly difficult to research and photograph, complicated by the fact we have a large number of different species. Ours was indubitably a brown one and on the larger side, something similar to Hoplodactylus duvaucelii. But it is just as likely to have been one of the other 38 or so different types already recorded.

We are by no means alone in our dedication to assisting the procreation of monarch butterflies

We are by no means alone in our dedication to assisting the procreation of monarch butterflies

Monarch butterflies we have in abundance here. Judging by the search terms which bring people to our websites at this time of the year, others are equally enthralled by these ephemeral beauties. I keep seeing questions typed in to Google like: how many monarch caterpillars can a swan plant support (depends entirely on the size of your swan plant…) and how long does a caterpillar take to grow (about three weeks). Can a caterpillar chrysalis on something other than a swan plant was another much searched question. The answer to that is yes, definitely, and it pays to encourage them to do so by poking in some bushy twigs by the plant. Having them chrysalis on the swan plant itself can be a real problem if their very hungry younger siblings munch right down the bare stems and the defenceless chrysalis then falls off. At this time of the year, earlier generations have often hammered the swan plants for food and newer caterpillars are running short. You can finish growing caterpillars on sliced pumpkin but it is not a complete food so it is unsuitable for getting very little ones through their weeks of growing.

Swan plants grow readily from fresh seed and if you are even halfway serious about wanting monarchs in abundance next summer, sowing a row in your vegetable garden in very early spring is a good means of getting the plants to a well established grade for later season egg-laying butterflies. Swan plants are generally biennial (so last two years) but they don’t like heavy frosts. This year’s plants can recover to support the first of next season’s caterpillars with the early spring sowing as a back up for later generations in the season. However, you do have to keep the young plants netted to stop them being stripped while very small. Letting some annual flowers seed down in spots of the vegetable garden can also provide food for the butterflies.

Food for the butterflies - a rather garish cosmos

Food for the butterflies - a rather garish cosmos

They need single flowers with visible stamens such as cosmos, marigolds, zinnias, daisies and poppies. A visitor stood in one of Mark’s vegetable gardens recently and suggested that it was not so much a veg patch as a mixed cottage garden.

The final word on the monarchs this season comes from one of our neighbours with whom we have had a running joke over time about stealing our monarch butterflies. Send them home, we have said. All the monarchs in this area are ours. Added Mark recently: please stop taking pot shots at our wandering monarchs. Ah, said neighbour riposted, those are the very rare and highly prized lacewing or whistling monarchs – the sound of the wind blowing through the holes in their wings. What more could we say?

In the Garden: June 25, 2010

The Monarch Rescue Centre

The Monarch Rescue Centre

  • Mark’s monarch rescue mission has resulted in a branch of about 100 suspended chrysalises which resembles a shish kebab. It moves around warm positions in the house but alas the successful emergence of healthy butterflies is at an all-time low. I don’t think even Mark is sufficiently obsessed to set up a long term rehabilitation and care centre for disabled and deformed butterflies, though he admits he has certainly thought about it.
  • You can still plant broad beans in the garden, along with garlic and shallots but generally, veg gardeners are now looking forward and preparing for spring plantings. If you have a favoured position, you can get the first sowing of carrot seed in but make sure you cover the row with a board or narrow strip of nova roof in order to keep heavy rain from compacting the finely tilled soil and washing the fine seed away.
  • • Potatoes will be coming into the garden centres. You need sheltered, frost free positions that get maximum warmth for really early crops, which tends to mean coastal area only. But anybody can be preparing now by chitting the taties – putting them in a single layer in a darkened location to encourage sprouting. Not all potatoes are the same and if you keep track of the different varieties, it is fun to buy a pick and mix selection to compare later. We are disappointed to find hollow centres in most of our large Agria this year (an otherwise splendid potato) which did not occur in any of the other varieties in the same location.
  • The great winter pruning operation should be starting. Deciduous trees, shrubs and climbers are generally winter pruned. Some, like rampant climbing roses and wisterias, need pruning to keep them under control. Some, like hydrangeas, apple trees, forsythia and many clematis or roses are pruned to maximise flowering and to keep a tidier plant. Some are only pruned occasionally as required, to remove twin trunks in a deciduous tree for example. In a small garden it is probably just as easy to work your way around the garden. In a big garden, it may be easier to work by genus – wisterias today, fruit trees or roses next week.
  • Winter is also the time to do a clean up spray on deciduous plants. Lime sulphur will clean up lichens and mosses and is widely used, as is copper at winter strength.
  • We are somewhat proudly still eating fresh green beans and corn on the cob harvested most days from the late plantings. The corn has lost its autumn sweetness but it is still fresh corn. The bean plants defoliated at the first hint of frost but the beans are still reasonably tender and good. They are a triumph of successional planting through spring and summer. Mark and dogs are almost getting a possum a night from the avocado trees. Apparently these critters love them just as much as humans. Even the dogs have developed a taste for avocado snacks.