It has been an extraordinary year for monarch butterflies in our area. Gardeners throughout the state have been sharing stories of milkweed being eaten down to stubs and loads of fat caterpillars stripping their plants bare.
This early generation of monarchs is the result of overwintering or returning migratory females laying their eggs, with successive generations moving further north as warmer weather advances.
If your milkweed got eaten down to nothing and there are still hungry monarch caterpillars about, you may need to purchase more. Local garden centers are carrying both tropical and native species because of increasing demand by gardeners.
Look for plants with aphids on the tips; this is a good indication these plants are not treated with insecticides, which has been an issue in past years. Monarchs may not like to switch from one species of milkweed to the other, but if left with no alternative, they will bite the milkweed, so to speak.
Butternut squash also can tide them over until they are ready to form a chrysalis. Larger, more mature caterpillars can feed on slices of the raw squash.
Raw cucumber slices and pumpkin also work in a pinch.
Reserve leafy milkweed plants for younger caterpillars and finish feeding the larger ones on alternative food sources if you are overrun.
Use a cage or net of some kind to cover your stubbier plants. This gives them a chance to leaf back out and recover without a new crop of caterpillars interfering.
Rooting milkweed cuttings is also a good way to build your stock. Cut pieces of stem with three to four nodes, wash the sap off the ends and dip the bottom in a rooting hormone. Root it in water or moist potting soil or sand.
Most milkweeds root readily, and you can build a good supply using what you already have. Remember to cut back tropical species of milkweed in June and October to encourage migration and stop the spread of the parasite OE.
Feeding other species of butterfly is also a fairly easy endeavor. Monarchs seem to get all the attention, but many species of butterfly enjoy plants that we grow in our gardens.
Louisiana has 153 reported butterfly species, many of which make our state their home. Plant with them in mind, and the butterflies will come. Here are some of the more common local species and which host plants attract them:
Cloudless Sulfur (Phoebis sennae): While there are many species of Sulphur in Louisiana, the Cloudless Sulfur is common in the New Orleans area. They are bright yellow and seem to match the blooms of their preferred host plants. Their host plant is the beautiful Senna or Cassias. The tropical candelabra tree (Senna alata) is also readily available at local garden centers.
Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes): Plant an abundance of parsley, chervil, rue, fennel and dill in your garden this spring to ensure you’ll have enough for your kitchen needs as well as the caterpillars that will appear. Striped green, black and yellow like a monarch but lacking the antennae, swallowtail caterpillars will host on members of the carrot family, including the herbs mentioned above. If you plant the native Queen Anne’s lace (Ptilimnium capillaceum) or the introduced one (Ammi majus), they also enjoy that; both make beautiful white wildflowers.
Giant Swallowtail (Heraclides cresphontes): If you grow citrus in our area, chances are you’ve noticed the “bird poop caterpillar.” They won’t damage or defoliate your trees, so just leave them be. Move them to mature citrus trees if they are on younger, newly planted citrus.
Pipe-vine Swallowtail (Battus philenor): Many local garden centers are carrying pipe vine, both the tropical (Aristolochia microphylla) and several native pipe vines, including wooly pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa). Avoid the tropical, showier pipevine; this has recently been discovered to be too toxic for caterpillars to successfully host on past the first instar. Wooly pipevine has been available at several local nurseries this spring, and seeds are easily ordered online.
Gulf Coast Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae): Fritillary caterpillars host on tropical and native species of passionflower vine. The native purple species (Passiflora incarnata) is readily found at most garden centers and the surrounding wild areas of New Orleans. This one is more cold hardy than the many tropical species available, but any type of passionflower will work well to host the bright orange, prickly-looking caterpillars.
Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus): If you plant anything in the legume family, which includes peas and beans, you may be lucky enough to attract the beautiful long-tailed skipper. While there are many types of skipper, the long-tailed is common in our urban vegetable gardens. Skippers are “leaf-rollers” and hide within the leaves by using silk to create a protective area. They will also host on American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) which is noninvasive.
I planted okra seeds over a month ago, and while they mostly sprouted, many died or are struggling. I suspect I may have planted them too early. Can you confirm this? — Dave E.
Hi, Dave, you did indeed plant early. Okra needs a soil temperature of around 65 F, and an ambient air temperature of around 70-85 F. Okra planted too early may “dampen off” or fail to thrive or even germinate. We recommend replanting if possible, anytime now through August. Okra thrives in hot weather, so next year, wait until the soil warms up before planting. — Anna Timmerman