Not Just A Weed

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When you buy a new home in the colder months, as we did, you often have no idea what treasures are contained in your garden. And sometimes even when spring and summer unveil the wondrous greens and colourful flowers of perennial plants…you still have no clue what you’ve actually got!

Take for example, the patch of annoying tall weeds that kept cropping up at the side of our house, beside our yew hedge. We would pull them out, or mow new shoots down; they would grow back. We didn’t even know what milkweed was, until our neighbour showed us why she was caring for hers with such dedication (thanks Bev!).

Milkweed leaf with monarch butterfly egg  © Allyson Scott

Although adult monarchs feed on a variety of flower nectar, monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and monarch caterpillars will only eat milkweed leaves on their journey to become butterflies. Oh no! Who knows what destruction we had wrought over the years?!

The eggs are typically found on the underside of leaves towards the top of the plant, protected from the elements, but are sometimes deposited among the flower buds or on the top sides of leaves. They appear as tiny white dots to the naked eye, but with the help of an Olloclip macro lens attachment for an iPhone, their unmistakable ridges become visible.

Monarch caterpillar egg on milkweed flower buds. © Allyson Scott

About four days after being laid, the tiny caterpillar’s black head is visible within the eggshell, which becomes its first source of food after hatching. So if you’ve been watching an egg develop on a plant, and then find it has mysteriously disappeared – take a close look around for that microscopic baby caterpillar!

Monarch caterpillar about to emerge from egg © Allyson Scott

Newly-hatched monarch caterpillar © Allyson Scott

Over the next couple of weeks, the caterpillar will go through 5 growth stages (called “instars”), and will shed its skin each time it needs to expand. They often consume all or part of it, so it’s often hard to find the evidence – which you may or may not find cool when you do see it, depending on whether you are Jody or Ali.

Small (instar 3) monarch caterpillars with shed skin on leaf above  © Allyson Scott

Large (4th instar) monarch caterpillar with shed skin on milkweed leaf © Allyson Scott

It’s possible to just watch the caterpillars grow on the plants in your garden, however, it’s also a little upsetting to realize how many predators they have to contend with. Birds, wasps, and other creatures will kill, parasitize, or run off with your pet project! After several instances of this, we raised a caterpillar on a milkweed plant cutting in a vase, covered with cheesecloth to prevent its escape. I couldn’t resist the photo ops that presented themselves each and every day!

Monarch caterpillar enjoying a milkweed meal © Allyson Scott

Once you become addicted to this miraculous process, you will find yourself consulting helpful websites that provide loads of information (like always stick your fresh milkweed cutting in hot water to begin with, to prevent wilting!) and suggestions for helpful products, such as a mesh butterfly cage. It keeps them safe and contained (provided you keep a close eye on the cage zipper and do not accidentally zip a resting caterpillar – live and learn), makes cleanup easier (yes, you have to regularly scoop caterpillar poop just like any other “pet”), and was also supposed to help with the chrysalis formation, as the caterpillar could just crawl to the top of the cage and hang from the ceiling. Of course, ours had other ideas.

Monarch caterpillar “hanging in J” before forming chrysalis © Allyson Scott

Monarch chrysalis on milkweed leaf © Allyson Scott

It spun its little silk thread and decided to hang from an old, dying milkweed leaf, which meant some creativity was required to help it last the next 10-14 days. A little tape, a large safety pin, and voila!

Monarch chrysalis hanging from mesh cage © Allyson Scott

As time passed, the chrysalis went from a bright jade green to a duller green, still covered in those brilliant metallic gold flecks, and we began to see the butterfly’s wings. The Internet told us the chrysalis would turn completely clear before the butterfly emerged, but we never witnessed that stage. We went to bed on the night of the tenth day with a still-green chrysalis, and woke up to find her already drying her wings.

Newly-emerged female monarch butterfly © Alllyson Scott

And yes, apparently it was a “she”! Male monarch butterflies have two small spots on their lower back wings that females don’t have, as seen below.

Male monarch butterfly resting on milkweed © Allyson Scott

The day that our butterfly emerged was overcast and rainy, and online advice said to wait until the next morning. Butterflies don’t need to feed for their first 24 hours, but we made sure the milkweed cutting in her cage had some flowers available just in case.

The next day, we took her to the safer patch of milkweed in our back garden, where she happily walked onto my finger in her cage, and I transferred her to a plant.

Ali carrying the butterfly to freedom © Jody McDonnell

Ready to go! © Jody McDonnell

Monarch butterfly feeding on milkweed © Allyson Scott

It was honestly one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever seen. She is not the generation that will make the migration to Mexico, but she will help to create the population that will. Summer butterflies only live a few weeks, but the ones born in late August and September will live for many months and migrate south. We will never look at our milkweed the same way – and we will certainly never yank it out again!

In fact, we may be planting more…

Monarch butterfly just before she went on her way © Allyson Scott

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