Garden club leading Illinois monarch recovery

By Tim Alexander For Chronicle Media

A monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed. (Photo by Jim Hudgins/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

It is now widely known that populations of the monarch butterfly, one of the most identifiable insects in North America and the official state insect of Illinois, have decreased significantly over the past two decades.

Illinois is among the states in the monarch’s annual migration path. Taking action, environmental nonprofits have linked wings with municipalities, state and national agricultural groups, government agencies and others to chart a course of survival for the black-and-orange butterfly, known for its yearly, multi-generational pilgrimage from overwintering areas as far north as Canada to southern Mexico.

“In 1996 there were 1 billion monarchs,” according to Kay MacNeil of the Garden Clubs of Illinois, a nonprofit organization that has been leading a grassroots campaign to restore lost habitat for the monarch. “In 2013 there were 33 million monarchs.”

The steep decline of monarch populations noted during their annual migration is a primary concern of the GCI, according to MacNeil. One explanation for the well-documented decline in monarch populations has been traced in part to the decrease in native plants such as milkweed — the sole source for food for monarch caterpillars. During the monarch’s yearly migration route, the butterflies seek the proper plants at the right time to fulfill their nutritional and developmental needs. Rural expansion, agricultural practices and invasive plants have led to declines in milkweed plants and other abundant sources of nectar the monarch and many other pollinators require.

To help boost their effort to restore monarch habitat, the Garden Club is offering free or discounted milkweed seed packets to the public.

“We will renew our efforts to promote monarch events and butterfly gardens in communities and schools, pass out our new GCI seed packets and monarch information fliers, and collect milkweed pods and distribute them free to anyone with big acreage or roadsides,” said MacNeil.

MacNeil is chairman of the GCI Illinois Milkweed for Monarchs program, which distributed 8,000 seed packets in 2017 and plans to distribute 10,000 more packets this year.

Despite a national outreach for preserving monarch habitat, the estimated population of the insect remains down by a dramatic 90 percent, according to the passionate environmentalist. “This is the state insect of Illinois. This is the beloved icon of the Midwest. We need milkweed in every garden and along the roadsides of America,” MacNeil said, adding that there are around 12 different kinds of the plant suitable for growth in the Midwest that monarchs will lay their eggs on. The GCI program offers season-by-season expertise on planning, planting and maintaining a perennial landscape featuring several varieties of milkweed beneficial to pollinators, including common, swamp, butterfly and tropical Asclepias. “Gardeners, this is your mandate,” MacNeil said. “Plan seed giveaways. Plan programs. Plan butterfly gardens.”

Rural, urban areas

The plight of the monarch has been a matter of concern to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and other local, state and federal agencies. In 2016, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources held a conservation summit meeting that focused on increasing monarch butterfly habitat. “A first step is to identify ongoing monarch conservation efforts so that we can better coordinate among them to create more butterfly habitat where it is needed,” said IDNR natural heritage division chief Ann Holtrop.

The United States Department of Agriculture National Resource Conservation Service is working with farmers and landowners to not only conserve monarch habitat, but to also conserve the environmental resources that help ensure farmers’ economic sustainability. NRCS is currently offering comprehensive resource conservation plans that aid the monarch and address other natural resource concerns on their land.

These practices include contour buffer strips that can include milkweed and valuable monarch nectar plants, as well as critical area plantings that provide the same benefits. Under NRCS programs, applicants can choose from more than three dozen conservation practices that can benefit monarchs through the maintenance of healthy stands of milkweed and other high-value nectar plants.

As part of the National Strategy to Protect Pollinators and Their Habitat, the NRCS hopes to measure farmers’ and rural landowners’ contributions to the goal of increasing the eastern population of monarchs to 225 million by the year 2020. To accelerate conservation, the NRCS is providing additional technical and financial assistance to help landowners in ten states — including Illinois — implement conservation strategies advantageous to the monarch migration.

Free seeds

GCI’s Milkweed for Monarchs program aims to restore habitat in cities as well as the countryside. “We want milkweed in every garden,” said MacNeil. “Our goal is to keep the information ripple moving out.”

Before joining the cause, however, a little preparation and schooling is in order. Many landowners, in particular those with limited gardening space, are reticent to plant common milkweed, an invasive perennial that can establish thick, vegetation-choking root systems more than 12 feet in length. Common milkweed has been long known as a bane of farmers for its ability to extend its root system from fence lines into crop fields to choke off corn and soybean plantings completing for oxygen and nutrients.

Common milkweed should only be utilized where plenty of land is available, MacNeil advises. Growers will be rewarded with 4-foot tall pink, fragrant flowers in umbels, and, quite likely, a steady stream of pollinators including monarch butterflies.

For those with less ground to spare, swamp milkweed has less invasive roots and grows to just 3 feet tall, as does butterfly weed. Also called “hello yellow,” butterfly weed “are very behaved perennials,” according to MacNeil. “Tuberosa butterfly weed has a root like a carrot and blooms from June to August. Plant these close to the house to see monarchs lay their eggs under the leaf.”

There is also tropical milkweed, which grows to 24-36 inches. Sow these seeds in the spring after the final frost. An annual re-seeding may be required until your stand is established.

“Plant the perennial seed where there is no mulch, just dirt roughed up,” MacNeil advises. “Drop the seed in top of the dirt or even on top of snow. No dirt is needed on top of the seed, but mark the location with a stick. Be patient.”

MacNeil also wants those who cannot plant milkweed where they live or work but who want to help the plight of the monarch to get involved. A page ( has been established to help GCI purchase and distribute milkweed seeds. In addition, the Illinois Environmental Council is partnering with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to offer monarch license plate stickers to Illinois drivers, with proceeds earmarked for the planting of milkweed roadside habitat along state highways and roads.

For more information on the plight of the monarch butterfly and how you can help, go to and search “Kay MacNeil Milkweed to Monarchs” or visit the GCI website at

For more details on the GCI Milkweed for Monarchs program or to order a free sample of three different kinds of milkweed from GCI, contact Kay MacNeil of the Garden Club of Illinois at or call her at (815) 469-1294.






— Garden club leading Illinois monarch recovery —