Early August is here, and the Monarchs are swooping down on us. There are endless things to write about in the garden: Joe Pye weed, prairie dock, summer azures, puddling, annual fleabane (still blooming!) -these are all things I was trying to write about, but the monarchs can not be denied. They really have the run of the garden right now, bossing all the other butterflies around. I just saw a monarch and a hummingbird run off a female swallowtail. Grumpiness takes wing.
I am sure that the number one reason we have so many monarchs visit us around this time each year, is the blooming of the meadow blazing star, Liatris ligulistylis. Often referred to as the “monarch magnet,” this plant is no joke! This year, we had monarchs landing on the very first, barely opening blossom.
Funny that when I planted these meadow blazing stars a few years ago, it was a mistake! I somehow mislabeled them (a mix up with shooting stars, you see), so I merrily thought I was planting a twelve inch tall plant under the peach tree and right at the front of the pond bed. These places would have been odd choices for meadow blazing star, a 5ft tall, sort of lanky plant, but they have turned out to be so great because they’re so easy to see from where we like to sit on the deck.
We watch the monarchs come and go, usually I’d say there’s about 4 or 5 or so, chasing each other, swirling around, flying inches overhead, and nectaring on meadow blazing star. They are daily almost bumping into me while they chase each other and mess around. It feels like I’m witnessing special August magic, and I feel so lucky to have this plant and these butterflies in my backyard. I guess what I’m saying here is… you got to plant this plant!
What’s in that nectar?!
Why are they so crazy/the craziest about meadow blazing star? Well after a lot of searching, I think I can say that no one really knows why, nor have they bothered to look into it! As far as I can find, no one has done a nectar analysis of this species, which to my mind, is rather astonishing, but there you are. Pollination ecologists! Restoration ecologists! Somebody with the proper tools! Maybe do this? It feels like an exciting question to me: the most attractive plant to the iconic and threatened monarch butterfly, whose mysterious nectar draws monarchs in from afar, yet no one knows what the monarch seeks so voraciously… is it simply the sugar, or could it be…. something else?! (see? super exciting!)
The make up of nectar is complex. It consists of water, sugars, amino acids, lipids, among numerous other organic chemicals. Each species of flower contains different ratios of these components, and so each species has unique nutritional benefits, and no doubt a unique flavor. A number of studies have shown that amino acids in nectar are particularly beneficial for butterflies, playing a role in increasing lifespan, egg production, egg size, larval size, and even increasing survival in some butterfly species. And so, what is the secret formula of meadow blazing star nectar? Hopefully, we’ll find out some time soon.
In the meantime, nothing should stop you from planting many, many meadow blazing stars, and changing your life and yard with beautiful, dancing monarchs.
Growing Meadow Blazing Star
Meadow blazing stars are really easy to start from seed with a 2 month cold treatment. They’ll look like a blade of grass the first year, but will very likely bloom the second year (if you don’t accidentally rip them out when you’re weeding -this has happened to me a number of times! and it’s terrible. It’s probably a good idea to flag them in some way for the first year.).
They need full to part sun, and they like a medium-wet to medium-dry soil, but the corms (very similar to bulbs) don’t want to be in a wet spot in winter. I would suggest planting 5-10 (or more!) every year to keep up your numbers because I have heard that voles love to eat these corms. So annually adding to your meadow blazing stars might be a good idea. In the right place, and if you don’t have too many voles, blazing stars (the Liatris genus in general) can live for decades.
If you’re looking to extend your liatris season (or live in the east), try Liatris aspera, or rough blazing star. These are also attractive to monarchs (although not quite as attractive as meadow blazing star), they bloom earlier in the summer, and are a bit shorter.
And of course my number one piece of advice is to plant them quite close to where you like to sit. Even if you think it’s an odd place for a tall plant, they have really attractive and interesting foliage as they grow in spring, and I bet you’ll grow to love having them and the monarchs so close by.
Meadow Blazing Star for Monarchs, Monarch Butterfly Garden
Meet the Blazing Stars, In Defense of Plants
Nectar chemistry. Nicolson S.W., Thornburg R.W. (2007). In: Nicolson S.W., Nepi M., Pacini E. (eds) Nectaries and Nectar. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-5937-7_5
Variation in nectar composition: The influence of nectar quality on Monarch success. Arnold, P. (2016). (Electronic Thesis or Dissertation)
Nectar Sampling for Prairie and Oak Savanna Butterfly Restoration. Arnold, Paige & Michaels, Helen. (2017). Applications in Plant Sciences. 5. 1600148.