During the various stages of its life cycle, the monarch butterfly has different habitat and dietary requirements. Monarch caterpillars rely exclusively on their host plant, milkweed, to eat their way to maturity and fuel successful metamorphosis. As adult butterflies, monarchs require nectar resources to provide the nourishment to sustain their reproduction, migration and overwintering.
In West Virginia, the milkweed requirement can be met by one of our many native milkweed species. The three that are most commonly found in our state are Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). The common milkweed lives up to its name, as it can be found throughout the state in fencerows, roadsides, ditches and fields. It can handle a wide range of soil moistures, but prefers a sunny location. From June to August, its balls of dusky pinkish blooms attract many pollinators.
Butterflyweed boasts distinctive yellow–to-orange flowers and blooms from May to September. Like common milkweed, it is found in sunny ditches, fields, and roadsides, and can tolerate a range of soil moistures.
Swamp milkweed is more often found in moist to wet soils, and can tolerate shade. Its blooms are a rosy purple and appear from June to October.
Although milkweed remains common in West Virginia, other states with fewer small farms, larger developed areas and more intensive, large-scale agriculture are not so lucky. Loss of milkweed across the Monarch’s spring and summer breeding area is believed to be a major cause of the Monarch’s decline. Many agencies and organizations have ongoing efforts to bring back milkweed through conservation practices and milkweed plantings, including the Xerces Society, Monarch Joint Venture, Monarch Watch, and Monarch Watch Milkweed Market.
As adults, monarch butterflies seek diverse nectar sources as the food to fuel their reproduction and migration. Nectar can be found in flowering plants, trees, and shrubs, but it is critical that these flowers be available throughout the entire time adult monarchs are in our state. To sustain adult monarchs in West Virginia, we need to have a variety of flowering plants across our landscape, providing blooms from early spring, when the first generation of monarchs reaches our borders, through late fall, when the migratory generation of butterflies is fueling up in WV for its long flight to Mexico.
Numerous native plants fit this bill. Monarchs frequently visit American plum trees (Prunus americana) as well as wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) and common gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata) when they arrive in West Virginia in the spring. Into the summer months, our milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), mountain mints (Pycnanthemum spp.) and common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) are favorite nectaring blooms. As fall arrives and our migratory monarchs emerge, plants like wingstem (Verbesina alterniflora), goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and ironweed (Vernonia spp.) provide quality nectar to carry our butterflies south.
Lists of West Virginia plants for pollinators and butterflies can be found in the West Virginia Pollinator Handbook, and in various published plant guides. Both these and other publications also provide extensive recommendations for propagating, managing and restoring milkweed, as well as for establishing diverse stands of wildflowers that attract butterflies.