Master Gardeners refresh garden for monarchs
A project by the Pearl River County Master Gardeners aims to help increase populations of monarch butterflies by providing habitat and educating the public.
This past spring, the group revamped a portion of the children’s educational garden at the Mississippi State University Crosby Arboretum to serve as an official, certified Monarch Waystation. Master Gardener members recently dedicated the garden with the placement of a sign from Monarch Watch, the nonprofit organization that manages the waystation program.
The Mississippi Master Gardener volunteer program is administered through the MSU Extension Service.
“I first learned that monarch populations were down to an alarming number at a native plant conference I attended with Arboretum Director Pat Drackett a few years ago,” said Amy Nichols, Pearl River County Master Gardener and arboretum volunteer. “Afterward, I did some research and learned that monarchs’ habitat is disappearing, and I wanted to help.”
Group members added native milkweed plants and other nectar-producing plants to offer suitable habitat to monarchs during their twice-a-year migrations. Milkweed provides the only food source for monarch caterpillars and serves as a place for adult monarchs to lay their eggs. Adult butterflies, like other pollinators, feed on nectar for energy.
“The garden already had a lot of annuals and perennials that attracted pollinators, but we added native milkweed plants to meet the specific needs of monarchs and the certification requirements for the waystation,” Nichols said.
The arboretum waystation joins almost 40 other certified gardens located at Mississippi parks, schools, nature centers, home gardens, and other locations.
Drackett and her colleagues at the MSU South Mississippi Branch Experiment Station in Poplarville are currently conducting research on native milkweed varieties. Their efforts will identify varieties that perform well in Mississippi’s climate, as well as the plants’ environmental preferences.
“A few years ago, arboretum visitors began to ask about where they could purchase native milkweed, and I found out that in Mississippi we just don’t have enough on the market to meet the demand,” Drackett said. “Nonnative tropical milkweed is readily available in garden centers, but recent research suggests that if it isn’t cut back at the right time, monarchs might not migrate, which could make them vulnerable to a parasite that can sicken or kill them.”
Drackett is currently collecting seed for the third year of trials that began in 2016. Her goal is to have the arboretum serve as a source of native milkweed that has been collected and propagated from local Mississippi populations for home gardeners. She encourages people to experiment in their own gardens with these Mississippi natives and to share with her their outcomes.
“We want to communicate with people of all knowledge levels who are experimenting with Mississippi natives,” she said.
Master Gardener Mary Donahue, who prepared the garden for new plantings at the beginning of the project, said the group also plans to expand the children’s educational garden.
“This garden is a great resource for teaching and learning,” Donahue said. “And the pollinators love it. We have a lot of butterflies and bees even in the cooler months.”
A community project by the Partners of Pearl River County provided labor and materials, including landscape timbers and fresh soil, to refresh the demonstration garden. Master Gardeners will care for the garden.
“We want to educate the public with this garden and encourage them to incorporate pollinator plants into their landscapes,” Nichols said. “This is a place they can come and see an example of how to do it and what plants will work.”
Operated by Extension, the Crosby Arboretum is the Southeast’s premier native plant conservatory. Monarch Watch is based at the University of Kansas and is dedicated to monarch conservation, education and research. For more information about monarchs and waystations, visit their website at http://www.monarchwatch.org/.
For more information about MSU’s milkweed research, visit the arboretum’s website at http://bit.ly/2i5vdBs. To learn how to volunteer through the Mississippi Master Gardener program, visit the MSU Extension Service website at http://bit.ly/2BCexdo.