Planting Beauty and Butterfly Food

Posted February 18, 2019 by Sarah Elam

Imagine if your body could only survive by eating one plant. And to make matters more complicated, that plant is getting harder and harder to find growing in the wild. How will you survive?! Hopefully you would lean on a little help from your friends to grow more of the plant to help you live.

This scenario is exactly what monarch butterflies face every day. The beautiful milkweed plant is the sole food source for monarch caterpillars; they cannot survive without it.

Milkweed seed pods. photos: Richland Soil and Water Conservation District

The monarch butterfly population in North America has plummeted by over 90% in just the last 20 years, according to the National Wildlife Federation. We humans need to be a friend to monarchs by planting milkweed to support their survival. Destruction of America’s grassland ecosystems, commercial agricultural practices, and using pesticides and spraying Roundup in our gardens have all contributed to the decline of the iconic monarch species, and milkweed plants.

The Cincinnati Zoo’s Family Community Service program came together to be friends of monarchs and milkweed this month by planting milkweed seeds at Bowyer Farm. This was a special event for our program, because in September 2018 our volunteers participated in a Monarch Tagging event at Bowyer Farm where we tagged monarchs in the name of science to observe them on their long migration journey, as well as collected milkweed seed pods along the wetland fields.

This month, volunteers came together to plant 1,800 milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds into flats at Bowyer Farm! Those seeds will be planted back onto the Bowyer land, as well as sold at native plant sales.

In addition to being a food source for monarchs, the starburst flowers of milkweeds offer abundant, delicious nectar to many pollinators including bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Milkweeds are named for their milky latex sap, which contains alkaloids and cardenolides, complex chemicals that make the plants unpalatable to most animals. Milkweeds have fleshy, pod-like fruits that split when mature, releasing seeds. Each milkweed seed is attached to fluffy hairs, known as pappus, silk, or floss, that aid in wind dispersal. The silk strands can carry the seeds off for miles, helping them settle on new land, hopefully forming new colonies of the precious plants and in turn sustaining monarchs.

Monarch on swamp milkweed. photo: Tom Koerner, USFWS

You may be wondering what does being a native plant mean? Native plants are those that occur naturally in a region in which they evolved. They are the ecological basis upon which life depends, including birds and people of the region. Without native plants and the insects that co-evolved with them, local birds cannot survive. It’s super important to try to plant native plants around us to support the rich diversity of ecological systems. When possible, we can plant native plants, flowers, trees, and shrubs in our gardens, landscapes, and wild places.

There are many species of milkweed native to Ohio. The five species considered superstar milkweeds, that monarchs seem to be particularly attracted to for egg-laying purposes, are common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Sullivant’s milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii), and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). For more information on these milkweeds, all milkweeds native to Ohio, and other native plants for your garden, click here for a great resource.

Interested in joining in on the fun we have in the Family Community Service program? Sign up here!


Families planted milkweed seeds into flats. photo: Shasta Bray


Brian Jorg, Native Plant Program Manager at Bowyer Farm, guides volunteers on best planting practices. photo: Shasta Bray


We planted 1,800 milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds! photo: Shasta Bray


It was a chilly day, but we kept warm and had a great time planting seeds! photo: Shasta Bray


Fia found a sunny spot to plant her seeds! photo: Shasta Bray