Graveyards for Monarchs

This op-ed ran in the Des Moines Register on 5/24/13. Since then, monarch numbers have declined further. Please consider planting milkweed, or contributing toward it being planted by someone else if you are unable. Below, a link to a good site to learn more about what kind of milkweed to plant and where to get it.  

The attention of the public landed on Monarch butterflies after reports in mid-March from their overwintering sites in Mexico indicated a staggering reduction in numbers. Monarch counts are done several ways, one of them being to measure the size of the area the congregated flocks take up in their mountain havens. This winter, the area was down by over 58%, and is the lowest recorded since measurements began in 1975.

These diminishing numbers appear to be directly synched to the reduction of availability of a particular plant. While monarchs “nectar” or feed on a variety of plants in their mature state, they lay eggs almost exclusively on milkweed plants, and the caterpillars that emerge from those eggs consume leaves of the plants on which they were born, and neighboring milkweed, until they split their skin several times, rapidly increase in size and march off to find a suitable place to make a chrysalis.

One of the benefits of consuming milkweed is the absorption of a toxin from the plant that makes the caterpillar poisonous to some predators, and distasteful to others, helping ensure their survival. The toxin remains with them through their well-known transformation, so the butterflies themselves have a measure of protection from the milkweed they fed on prior to their winged state, called a chemical defense.

The insufficient supply of milkweed has multiple causes, including the development of many wild spaces, and the use of herbicides and roadside mowing practices, as well as economic factors such as the price of corn in recent years, which has motivated some farmers to till areas that were once left rough. Those fringes that were once outlining fields, and the ditches that were previously uncultivated, allowed milkweed the pockets in which they could thrive. The cultivation of wild spaces, and the development of land once used for crop production, plays a role in the drastic reduction of the Monarch population.

Solutions to problems like this are generally complicated and require philanthropy and buy-in on a large scale. How many citizens might decline to buy a lot and build a house there because they could be contributing to the demise of a butterfly species? Likely not many. Convince farmers to increase their financial risk by leaving farmable acres fallow? Not very realistic in a volatile industry, and perhaps unfair to ask them to shoulder more than their share of the responsibility. Buy swatches of land spanning North America to allow milkweed to grow? Financially out of reach.

However, all across the United States, and in neighboring countries, we have land that is already purchased, fenced off and essentially uncultivated. Virtually every county in every state hosts at least one cemetery. Most counties have several, sometimes one in every township. Often at the edge of town, sometimes out in the countryside, and occasionally on the edge of a farmer’s field, they are quiet spaces, well-tended or neglected, where the living might visit the dead. Some have rules against planting, but many have no restrictions, and in those, graves sport plantings of peonies and other hardy flowering plants as decorations.

What if we saved Monarchs by planting milkweed in those cemeteries? “Graveyards for Monarchs” would draw butterflies and their inherent grace to burial plots, offering comfort to the grieving. The squares and rectangles of fenced space all across the country would become what Monarch Watch calls way stations, a place to lay their tiny eggs and secure their survival. The cemetery fence lines themselves could be planted with varieties of milkweed, and individual grave plantings could include milkweed as well.

Even empty gravesites, purchased but not yet utilized, could be planted with milkweed and other butterfly-friendly plants to raise generations of butterflies until the gravedigger comes. After a burial, the plants could be replaced. An added benefit would be a reduction in the amount of mowing required.

Families and individuals who decorate graves for Memorial Day might consider milkweed this year, and boards who manage cemeteries might discuss establishing milkweed at the gates, in the memorial garden, or at the fence line. Graveyards would be resurrecting butterflies.

Kelly Madigan is the author of Getting Sober (McGraw-Hill) and The Edge of Known Things (SFASU Press). She has hand-raised, tagged and released a Monarch butterfly. Learn more at

Be a Butterfly Savior:—–Garden-for-the-Monarchs

Abundance of information on monarchs and milkweed at Milk the Weed:

Same idea, in video blog form: Simple Idea to Save Monarch Butterflies

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