Milkweed to Monarchs

Cincinnati Nature Center’s plant-your-own milkweed initiative aims to help save the Monarch butterfly

Apr 15, 2015 at 9:25 am

The plight of the Monarch butterfly will take a positive turn following the launch of the Cincinnati Nature Center’s large-scale “Milkweed to Monarchs” project. It’s a signature initiative of the center’s Conservation & Stewardship Department, with the intent of educating the community on the species’ struggle for survival while promoting the widespread planting of the popular black-and-orange butterfly’s exclusive food, common milkweed, in southwest Ohio and beyond. 

The population of Monarch butterflies in the Midwest has dramatically decreased over the last decade by an alarming 97 percent due to habitat loss and the consequential loss of wild-growing milkweed. Female Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed leaves, and their larvae eat only the plant as well; their complete dependency on this plant highlights the fragility of the species, unlike other butterflies, whose diets include plants like parsley and maple leaves. 

And many factors are contributing to the decline in milkweed growth.

“The increased use of all sorts of herbicides from home owners to commercial large-scale crop farmers are destroying the natural growth of the plant,” says Bill Creasey, the center’s chief naturalist since 1973. “Not only this, but the changing practice of allowing fields to go fallow, where fields used to be allocated resting years (from crop production) — a time for milkweed to grow and flourish — are now being put back into production for growing corn and ethanol. This, along with shifting land management practices, means the species’ habitat has almost been wiped out.”

The Milkweed to Monarchs program is asking the public to plant milkweed seeds in their gardens from seed packets that are available for free from the Cincinnati Nature Center’s Rowe Visitor Center (4949 Tealtown Road, Milford) or from more than a dozen other merchants, such as Pipkin’s Fruit and Vegetable Market in Blue Ash, Jungle Jim’s in Eastgate, 17 Graeter’s locations and Blue Manatee Children’s Bookstore in Oakley, to name a few. Planting instructions are printed on the back of each packet.

“A lot of the time homeowners assume that weeds might always be a problem, but the milkweed plant is actually very beautiful,” Creasey says. He suggests the milkweed seeds should be planted under a light layer of soil in an area with plenty of sunlight.

If you’re buying milkweed seeds or mature plants from outside vendors, be sure to distinguish common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which has pink flowers, from tropical milkweed, a variation with rich red and yellow leaves that is not suitable for local butterflies. Tropical milkweed actually fosters transmission of the protozoan Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, which specifically infects Monarch and Queen butterflies with a debilitating parasite. 

Purchase milkweed at the CINCINNATI NATURE CENTER’s native plant sale (April 17-June 30). For more info, visit