“If you plant it, they will come,” says Marcus Descant, known around town as “The Urban Naturalist.” He’s referring to butterfly-attracting milkweed, which could build a naturalist’s field of dreams. Butterflies love milkweed, a tall flowering plant that provides a source of nectar for them. Milkweed also serves as monarch butterflies’ food of choice during their migratory journey from North to South, which started in September. The monarchs are still passing through Lafayette this month.
“Fall is high activity for migration,” explains Descant, who sells milkweed and other flowering plants good for pollination at his nursery on Madison Street in the LaPlace neighborhood. He’s been pushing several varieties of milkweed, including two native forms, all summer to get South Louisiana gardens ready for the butterflies’ arrival. More than just putting on a pretty show, attracting and sustaining monarch butterflies is important because research has shown that they could become extinct during our lifetime.
“The population is still down but is a little better for this year,” Descant says. “Louisiana is expected to have more traffic this year than in the past. Spring migration was busy.”
According to JourneyNorth, a tracking program that has a live migration map on its website, early arrival monarchs were spotted in Sunset and Mamou, as well as the northshore of New Orleans, in August. The butterflies — recognizable by their larger size and tiger-like orange and black markings — trickle down in late summer, and migration can last all the way through Thanksgiving.
Even though the butterflies don’t stay and winter in Louisiana, the state is an important stopover for them on their journey from the Rocky Mountains to Mexico. Louisiana is part of the eastern migration pattern, while the western monarch goes down the West Coast to California. Both species have suffered sharp declines over the past 10 years, with a large drop in 2018. According to a Newsweek report at the beginning of this year, the North American monarch population has decreased by more than 90 percent over the past two decades.
Descant says the decline is caused by agricultural spraying of herbicides like Roundup, which has killed most of the native milkweed and given butterflies nothing to eat. It’s taken a concerted effort to begin rebuilding the population, and their growing numbers are starting to become more obvious.
“Their rise is due to education and planting and years and years of trying to put back the milkweed,” he says. “For me, it began about 10 years ago.”
The Urban Naturalist garden center carries both native and non-native varieties of milkweed.
Native plants can handle our soil, climate and rainfall, and also survive in South Louisiana’s extreme heat and humidity. But Descant says non-native Tropical Milkweed, recognizable by its orange and red flowers, feeds the most species of butterflies.
An upshot of planting butterfly food is that it’s a much easier way to start gardening.
“It’s much easier than growing vegetables,” he says. “You just put some cardboard down for the weeds and shredded leaves on top. It’s good for the beginner gardener and for kids.”
And that’s not even the best part. Plants like Tropical Milkweed and sunflowers will seed for the following year, so all you have to do is sit back and wait for them to sprout up and welcome the butterflies on their journey back in the spring.