Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Visit to a Butterfly Grove

Monarch Butterfly/photo courtesy Pismo Beach Butterfly Grove
Although we often take trips to the California coast, we had never visited one of the several Monarch Butterfly Groves located there. But last weekend we finally made some time to visit the largest of the butterfly groves at Pismo Beach.

The groves are roosting places, from late October to February, for the monarch butterflies that migrate there from as far north as Canada to seek shelter from freezing weather. They flock to the groves of non native Eucalyptus trees (and sometimes Cypress, pine, or Redwood trees) on the mild California coast. At least that is the habit of the monarchs that live on the western side of the Rocky Mountains. The monarchs living east of the Rockies fly to Mexico to overwinter.

I learned that bit of information, and much more, from the well informed docents at the park who provide information about the life cycle and journey of the amazing monarchs.

'Butterfly Weed' Asclepias

Perhaps it's because of the photos I had seen on other blogs of the brilliantly colored flowers of 'Butterfly Weed' (Asclepias) or reading about what other gardeners are doing to bring pollinators to their yards, but  I wanted to know more about the habits of these amazing butterflies, who in the 5th generation, fly thousands of miles to reach overwintering sites. There they rest, mate, and then fly away at the end of February to begin laying the first of a new generation of eggs on milkweed plants throughout the San Joaquin Valley and points beyond and into Canada.

We looked in amazement at the thousands of monarchs clustered in groups hanging in bunches from high in the trees, looking very much like clusters of leaves. Until you looked through the telescopes that were provided. Then the individual butterflies could be seen. My little camera could not telescope enough to get a good photo, but below is one of the butterfly clusters. Those are butterflies, not leaves!  Not many monarchs were flying about just yet, waiting until the end of February when it gets a bit warmer before mating and going on their northward journey.

Monarch butterfly cluster

It's interesting that they cluster with overlapping wings in order to keep warm. The butterfly count at the Pismo Grove is about 30,000 this year. We learned that there has been a greater than 80% decline in the number of overwintering Monarchs since 1997. (Click on the link to see a record of the historical count at this grove: Historical Counts of Monarchs at Pismo).

It is believed that the decline in numbers is due to the loss of the milkweed habitat because of the use of herbicides, urban, rural and agricultural development and the long term drought.

Milkweed or Butterfly Weed (both plants belong to the genus Asclepias ) are the only host plants for the monarch butterfly. The female lays her eggs, which look like white poppy seeds, on the underside of the leaves of the milkweed plant and the little caterpillars emerge in a few days and immediately begin munching on the leaves of the milkweed.

'Butterfly Weed' Asclepias at Pismo Grove

Monarch egg/courtesy of Pismo Butterfly Grove

 A captive caterpillar that was housed in a "bug house" happily munching away on milkweed.

And a chrysalis that has attached itself to a twig just waiting for its birthday.

I think 'Butterfly Weed' with its brightly colored flowers is much prettier than the common milkweed that grows here in the Valley, although common milkweed is becoming increasingly uncommon due to development and agriculture.

We were given a brochure from the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wildlife through conservation. The society suggests planting native milkweed and not 'tropical milkweed' to help restore the western monarchs' habitat. Click here for information about native California milkweed. I am still a bit confused about tropical vs native milkweeds and will be researching more.

'Butterfly Weed' (Asclepias) in my garden 7/18/13
Last July was the first year that I planted 'Butterfly Weed' (Asclepias)) in my Valley garden. I don't remember the variety. I brought back some six packs from a coastal nursery, and the little plants grew amazingly well. Mr. S reported seeing a Monarch on one of the plants even before I had planted them in the ground!  I planted a few in the ground, potted up a couple to keep in a protected place in case of freezing winter temps, and I gave a few to neighbors. They continued to bloom right up until freezing temperatures in December. The ones in the ground turned black, but the two in pots in a protected area have remained green. Today I found some seed pods on one of the blackened plants and scattered them about.

Before we left the butterfly grove last week, we stopped by the kiosk where I bought a packet of seeds of Asclepias Curassavica from Douglas-Michel Butterflyplants. Today I noticed instructions on their website to "cut back plants by ⅓ in December to mimic native species." I think I will need to ask some more questions!

Then this note was attached to the back of the seed packet. Sometimes trying to do the right thing can be so confusing!


  1. Interesting information. I have to admit I had very few butterflies this past season. Of course I don't have as many perennials out as I use to, but I believe our butterflies have reduced a lot. Hope your addition brings many to your yard.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

    1. Hi Cher, I'm trying to become more knowlegable about native flowers
      and hoping to incorporate more of them in the garden. Apparently butterflies are in decline all over the country. I hope you have a better butterfly year!

  2. Oh what a great post to be reading here in the middle of winter! And what a joy it must have been to see the Monarchs!
    I saved seeds from my Butterflyweed - will plant them in the Spring. And I'm hoping last year's plants have survived and will put up new stems.
    Have a wonderful week-end!

    1. Hi Lea, My last year's plants, the ones I planted in the ground, seem to have a little green on the stems so I think they may come back from the roots. The ones in pots didn't go dormant but they were in a protected area. I hope we both will have photos of our Butterfly Weeds to show and hopefully some monarch pictues as well! And you have a great week end too!

  3. Hi Dorothy, that is truly an interesting post! I would love to visit a Monarch Butterfly Grove as well and maybe I do. It was sad to me to read that the Monarch population overwintering at Pismo Beach has been reduced by 80%. What do we do to nature? I firmly believe that in the end human beings will get the bill to pay for that. But enough of being negative! I have to do some research myself and maybe I will plant some milkweeds for the Monarchs this year, too. Thanks for writing this wonderful post and sharing the valuable info! Wishing you a nice weekend!

    1. Hi Christina, By keeping an organic garden you are helping to support the monarchs' chance of survival. And I too try to garden without the use of pesticides and herbicides. I think the public is becoming more aware so hopefully we will begin to see the monarch population increasing. Now I want to plant some native milkweed! I hope you too have a great weekend!

  4. It will be interesting to see what happens to butterflies with this drought. I really would like. Grey system for my garden.

    1. Hi Maybelline, I hope you had rain in your area of the Valley yesterday. We had a couple of nice showers here. Still not enough but I guess every bit helps. I am curious about a grey water system too. It's going to be very challenging trying to do any kind of gardening! And I am worried about all the little creatures if this drought continues!

  5. Beautiful flowers. I often see that flowers here, but I have never seen the fruit and seeds before. So interesting

    1. Hi Endah, I think the pictured flower may be a tropical Butterfly Weed which is not native to my area like native milkweed. But I could be wrong. I plan to get more information. I have more to learn!

  6. In Canada we see the other end of the migration. I'm planting a lot of native species. If I put in milkweed how will the monarchs find them? do we have to be on some kind of route? As you say, so much to learn.

    1. Hi Susan, Good for you! I've been a litle concerned about planting the tropical milkweed although it is pretty. I'm trying to find out a little more about our native plants. And I want to plant native milkweed.I just read something today on GardenWeb. I didn't know, but they have a milkweed's the link: I believe I read if you plant it, they will come!