butterlyA landscape design isn’t all about the showy, colorful flowers and making sure the grass is a luscious green color all year round. Sometimes a landscape can be designed for not just humans — but the little critters that keep a garden going.

Planting milkweed has become a popular trend for homeowners who love the sight of the Monarch butterfly. This species is native to North America and travels thousands of miles as part of a massive migration effort every year to Mexico where they seek a warmer climate to reproduce.

But chances are not many plant nurseries will be offering Milkweed any time soon (mostly due to the fact that it has “weed” in it’s name). For those home owners who enjoy the sight of the butterflies and are concerned about their rapidly decreasing numbers, planting milkweed is a way to help out the species.

Monarch butterfly larvae feed only on milkweed leaves, and because the milkweed plant isn’t the most attractive of foliage, most homes get rid of it — causing the Monarchs to leave as well. Milkweed is also a poisonous plant, so home owners may get rid of it in order to protect pets or children. The plant is responsible for the distinct coloration of the Monarch butterflies.

Milkweed is more than just food for butterflies though; this plant sustains nearly 300 species worldwide as the butterflies use it’s leaves as hosts on which to lay eggs. The plant’s poison is used as a defense mechanism in mature butterflies that warns predators (birds, bats, etc.) that they are dangerous. Yet this has not helped the number of Monarch butterflies rebound.

Randy Johnson, a native plant expert who collects milkweed and other native plant seeds believes that the plant is a keystone to many ecosystems.

“Many of the wild prairies are being overtaken by development,” said Johnson. “When the prairies go, so do the native plants. So do the insects that feed on the plants, the birds that eat the insects and the chemicals that the plants produce.”

“Native plants have been difficult to sell to many home owners,” Will McClatchey, research director at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth, explained. “To many, they look like reedy weeds.”

He and his institute have urged buyers to purchase native plants in order to balance a fragile ecosystem. Other areas around the country — such as those in droughts — have already shifted towards using plants native to their locations.

“Its important to maintain the population of native plants and animals because they thrive better in those original regions and benefit the ecosystem,” says Nicole Onstott, President of landscaping company Artistic Group Inc. “Most people think of insects as pests, but they are a crucial part of any healthy garden.”

Milkweed is a good start for those located in the Great Plains and Northeastern regions of the United States. It has plenty of variety, grows fast, and is perennial. The plant even offers flowers that range from a pale green and white to pink, purple, and orange.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” McClatchey says.

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