By Francisco Nava
The Monarch and Milkweed
My partner has created a monarch nursery in his garden to collect, nurture and help birth Monarch butterflies. The magic of watching a small, tri-colored caterpillar grow amazingly fast and metamorphosize into a chrysalis is astounding. More so, when the chrysalis opens and the transformed caterpillar emerges as a beautiful Monarca (Danaus plexippus), ready to leap onto your hand to dry its wings in the sun before its maiden flight. Monarchs represent the souls of our ancestors returning to visit their loved ones for Día de Muertos. This belief comes from the Purépecha, as well as the Mazahua, two indigenous peoples of the area.
The entire lifecycle of the monarch butterfly is dependent on the milkweed (Asclepias). It is sometimes called the “milkweed butterfly” because it is the only plant the monarch larvae or caterpillars can eat.
The milkweed offers more than just a delicious treat for the developing caterpillars. Milkweed provides the monarch butterflies and their larvae with a unique form of protection. The milkweed plant is poisonous, and the larvae ingest a large amount of the toxic substances found in the plant. Like the old saying “you are what you eat”, monarchs share this defense with the milkweed by storing the poison in their bodies. The bright orange color of the adult monarch’s wings warns other animals that it will not be a very pleasant insect to eat.
But these plants are rapidly disappearing, due to the loss of habitat stemming from land development and the widespread spraying of weed killer on the fields where they live.
What does the monarch do for the milkweed? As the adult butterfly flies from flower to flower looking for food, it helps to pollinate the milkweed. This allows the milkweed to successfully produce seeds that will grow and attract more monarchs in the years to come.
Without the milkweed plant, the monarch would not be able to survive. Together, the two species have formed a beautiful relationship that has lasted for generations.
There’s quite a debate as to whether it’s wise to plant Asclepias curassavica (tropical milkweed) or not. Tropical milkweed may be a factor in the spread of a parasitic infection that attacks monarchs. The infection is called OE (short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) and is transmitted by spores that fall from an infected female’s body onto the host plant when she lays her eggs. The hatchling caterpillars eat the spores along with the leaves, and become infected themselves. After a generation or two or three, the infection level becomes so high that the butterfly dies (sometimes in the caterpillar stage, sometimes in the pupae stage and sometimes as the adult).
If you do already have tropical milkweed, one solution is to cut it back severely a couple of times a year. Even better is to remove the tropical variety and switch to native milkweed species. Unfortunately, these varieties are not widely available in the nursery trade and are not as easy to grow as the tropical variety.
WHAT TO PLANT IN DECEMBER
The climate in Mexico begins to turn during the Autumn when temperatures at higher altitudes will begin to feel generally cooler from late September. By mid-to-late December towns and cities situated at higher elevations can feel chilly or even cold after sundown and in the early hours of the morning.
Carefully plan your vegetable garden for next year so that you ensure good crop rotation to avoid a buildup of pests and diseases. Reflect on what worked well this year and what didn’t and don’t be afraid to try new ideas. Take an inventory of tools and equipment that you need for next year and add them to your Christmas list. Many plants will be going into a dormant period and this is a good time to prune them, before they start putting out new growth as the weather warms. Prune fruit trees to maintain an open, balanced structure and encourage quality fruit production. Use clean, sharp secateurs to avoid damaging your trees. Remove yellowing leaves from your winter brassicas. They are of no use to the plant and may harbor pests and diseases. Prune climbing roses now, removing diseased or damaged growth and tying in any new shoots to their support. Force amaryllis bulbs (Hippeastrum), which you will find at some viveros, for Christmas bloom. Viveros will have poinsettias, Christmas cactus, fuchsias, petunias, pansies and snapdragons. You can still plant cool weather veggies now. Some of the more tender plants may need to be protected from cold night winds. Garden pests are feeling the chill too, but keep an eye out for them as our ground never freezes. They are with us all year. Start thinking about what you want to grow or change in your garden next year. Seed catalogs are wonderful sources of inspiration, as are gardening books.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com