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Monarch Butterflies and California's Drought: Planting Desert Milkweed Boosts Breeding Populations [VIDEO]

Oct 21, 2015 02:16 PM EDT

California's drought is proving to be beneficial for migrating monarch butterflies. That's due to California homeowners who are increasingly replacing their lawns with drought-tolerant milkweed, which the monarchs munch on with glee.

Many species, including monarch butterflies, rely on milkweed as a primary food source but only monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Once born, caterpillars rely on the plants to eat, grow and develop. 

Milkweed is native to California and can thrive in arid conditions, according to the Associated Press. Common milkweed can grow up to six feet tall with large, broad leaves. Most species produce clusters of pinkish-purple flowers and green pods that contain fluffy seeds. In total, there over 140 known species of milkweed that grow throughout the U.S. where the plants inhabit a broad range and are able to grow quickly because their seeds are easily spread by the wind. (Scroll to read more...)

The key to making sure California homeowners are actually helping monarch populations is by planting the right species of milkweed. Although tropical, or more "exotic," milkweed species may be more attractive to homewoners, they can actually interfere with the monarch's famed migration. Tropical milkweed is adapted to grow year-round in mild climates. This milkweed species is not native to the U.S., where most milkweed species die back during winter months, so it throws off monarch migration. Tropical milkweed plants have also been known to infect monarchs with a debilitating parasite known as Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). This infection ultimately makes the butterflies too weak to expand their wings, taking a toll on longevity.

Californian homeowners are encouraged to plant desert varieties of milkweed, since these plants act as a nutritious source of nectar and area a safe home for developing larvae.

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