It is a somewhat gloomy grey and damp day here today, brightened by a knock at the door. There stood a woman, slightly abashed. She had read a piece I wrote recently about monarch butterflies and decided that we were better placed than she was to offer a good home to her last monarch of the season. It had hatched last night and was yet to fly. This little delivery involved a drive of at least 20 minutes to get here (and presumably the same to get home again) but we are not going to discuss the carbon footprint.
What a lovely ray of vibrant colour this butterfly offers, perched on the discarded sasanqua camellia flowers I was photographing yesterday. When he is ready to fly, he will find some friends over on our butterfly hillside. I was charmed.
A fortnightly series first published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.
Sanvitalia procumbens planted for the monarch butterflies here
It has not been a good year for monarch butterflies. We put this down to the unusually cool, wet summer but find it worrying how just one season can almost wipe out the population. We don’t just grow one or two swan plants (usually Gomphocarpus fruticosus). We plant them in succession throughout the season, like green beans and sweet corn, to ensure continued supply because it is the end of season caterpillars we target so we can have them wintering over. Usually we will have monarchs visible in the garden at any time of the year, but they are a rare sight this season so it is not looking good for winter and the early flush in spring. It is not for want of food – there are untouched swan plants in abundance.
In order to provide plenty of food for the butterflies in autumn, Mark fills any spaces in the vegetable garden with nectar rich annuals. We don’t do a lot with annuals in the ornamental gardens beyond self sown pansies and love-in-the-mist (Nigella damascens), but the autumn vegetable garden resembles a meadow mix these days. The gem this year has been a miniature zinnia relative, Sanvitalia procumbens “Mandarin Orange” from Kings Seeds. While the flower colour could be a little cleaner, it is such a tidy, little filler plant it has been promoted out of the vegetable garden and into the rockery.
Winter food is also necessary to keep these monarch delights at home. The most successful plant we have is the yellow daphne (Edgeworthia papyrifera) which attracts them from a considerable distance. As a general rule, it is single flowers which are rich in available nectar. The fancier and fuller the bloom, the less likely it is to feed butterflies and nectar seeking birds like tui. There is plenty of information on http://www.monarch.org.nz if you wish to know more about encouraging butterflies in your garden.
1) Mark is relocating the late season monarch caterpillars into the warmth of his glasshouse to give them a better chance of reaching maturity before the winter chill. Every caterpillar is precious this year.
2) Cut off the Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) in the rockery. We let these naturalise for autumn height and colour, but they set vast amounts of seed and there is a narrow line between naturalising and taking over.
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Wintering over in the neighbourhood - the monarch butterfly
The flower is Edgeworthia papyrifera (syn: chrysantha), often referred to as the yellow daphne. Botanically they are related although papyrifera makes a large deciduous clump and the very long leaves appear after flowering. While scented, it lacks the knock-out fragrance of most daphnes but it makes a stand-out shrub at this time of the year. We have seen the red-orange flowered form in Europe but as far as we know it is not yet available in this country. The bark of this edgeworthia is used to make a high quality paper.
Edgeworthia papyrifera, often called the yellow daphne
The monarch butterfly is a minor personal triumph for Mark and we are delighted to see so many feeding on the edgeworthia. For some years, Mark has been sowing swan plants and managing them to encourage late crop monarch butterflies which are more likely to winter over here. Such is his determination that he sowed in excess of 1.1 km of swan plant seed last summer (that is 1100 metres if you measure out each single row end on end) to add to his other established swan plantations. In fact, for once the feed supply exceeded the demand of the caterpillars. This is one of the advantages of winding down the open ground production in the nursery – having well cultivated ground to sow straight into. Now he is increasingly targeting feed plants for the butterflies and we are hoping that surrounding neighbours who are also graced by our monarchs will do the same. This season’s first crop of monarch eggs are being laid and Mark even found a large caterpillar which had wintered over. We expect a bumper number of monarchs this year.
New Zealand has an abundance of interesting moths but they tend to be beautiful in a very understated manner. We are rather short on butterflies here, so the international monarch (which arrived here naturally so can be classed as native) is highly prized.