Scientists have marked a steep decline in the total number of insects and arthropods living in our environment, and butterflies, including the monarch, are not immune.

Under the cloud of COVID-19, the vernal equinox quietly passed on March 19, as did a canceled workshop on planting pollinator gardens for declining butterfly populations. Despite the canceled workshop, butterfly lover and retired forester Tom Landis hopes gardeners and home owners in Siskiyou County will take up a spade and help out the monarch and other butterfly species who rely on native plants and nectar-giving flowers to survive.

Scientists have marked a steep decline in the total number of insects and arthropods living in our environment, and butterflies, including the monarch, are not immune.

“If you ask any old-timers in southern Oregon or northern California, monarchs used to be quite common in the 1980s and 1990s, but populations crashed in 1997,” said Landis. “The Xerces Society organizes a monarch count at the overwintering sites along the California coast, and the population really crashed the past two years.”

The Xerces Society, whose members have held an annual Thanksgiving Day count for decades, reported a decrease from 1.2 million monarchs in the Pacific Northwest to less than 50,000 even as monitoring sites increased since the end of the 1990s. Landis points to the continued and increased use of pesticides and urban encroachment on overwintering sites as major contributing factors to this decline. Monarch butterflies might be changing behavior due to climate change as well.

“Monarchs are leaving overwintering grounds earlier, when many varieties of milkweed have not yet sprouted or grown enough to be usable,” said Landis, referring to native milkweed species that are an essential food and habitat for the monarch. “It’s possible that monarchs are making their return migration later in the year, so nectar availability in the late fall may be limiting.”

While gardeners and advocates cannot affect the decline of overwintering spots on the coast or change the weather, we can plant flowers and shrubs that feed, shelter and provide rearing habitat for the monarch as it makes its journey through the area.

The monarch butterfly is a tropical butterfly that has adapted to a wide range of climactic conditions through migration. A single monarch can fly more than 40 miles in a day, and members of the species will range up to 2,000 miles between summer locations and overwintering locations on the California coast. In Siskiyou County, the monarch is actively feeding and breeding from April to September and migrating through the area on their way toward the coast during October and November.

As caterpillars, monarchs eat milkweed exclusively; planting native varieties in the home or community garden can provide essential habitat for the butterfly. Landis recommends planting two species only, Narrowleaf Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) or Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).

“Don’t buy online,” said Landis. “You have a good chance of getting the wrong species. There are 20 to 30 varieties of milkweed in the US, and it is important to get the right variety for the area.”

Landis cautioned interested gardeners to avoid nurseries that use neonicotinoid insecticides, which are linked to declining butterfly populations. He said insecticides can linger in the soil and even sub-lethal exposure has the potential to disorient migrating insects.

Milkweed can also be propagated from rhizomes, or underground stems, of established milkweed plants. Rhizome sections can be as short as two inches, said Landis, who recommends carefully taking sections with soil attached to avoid damaging fine roots. As a perennial plant, milkweed will come back from year to year. In addition to milkweed for egg and caterpillar development, all butterflies need nectar-giving flowers to sustain themselves as adults. While all flowers have pollen, not all flowers have nectar. The iconic California poppy, for instance, has pollen for bees but does not contain nectar. Landis recommends planting early, mid and late-season plants that produce nectar.

“Right now, in the early season we have Oregon grape growing,” said Landis, who suggested Camas as another option for early in the season. Coyote mint is a good mid-summer planting; and buckwheat, coneflowers and golden rod are late-season plants worth considering, he added. Landis collects milkweed seeds and is happy to make them available for intrepid gardeners wishing to grow from seed.

For a complete list Landis recommends downloading the Native Pollinator Plants handbook available from the Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates website at

In Yreka, the Siskiyou Arboretum and Native Plant Nursery, located south of Greenhorn Park, focuses on endemic flowers and forbs like lupine, milkweed and yarrow. For more traditional garden plants, as well as plenty of butterfly flower seed mixes, Scott Valley Feed and Garden is stocked and serving customers. G&G Hardware in Yreka is also still open at this time. Enjoying the outdoors, digging in a backyard garden, or creating butterfly habitat are perfect low-impact activities that people can engage in while social distancing. It’s healthy for the gardener and good for the planet.

“It’s a good time to garden,” said Landis.

For more information about obtaining milkweed seeds or other pollinator planting information, contact Tom Landis at

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