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Friday - April 24, 2015

From: Pleasant Hill, CA
Region: California
Topic: Non-Natives, Butterfly Gardens, Wildflowers
Title: Is Tropical Milkweed Harmful to Monarchs?
Answered by: Anne Van Nest

QUESTION:

I believe I recently read that the orange flowering Mexican milkweed carries a virus(?) or something that harms monarch butterflies. What are recommendations if I use this plant in my northern CA yard?

ANSWER:

Mexican milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is also known as tropical milkweed and is not a native plant. Wikipedia says that it is an introduced species in the US states of California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas, as well as the US unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands. It is native to the American tropics.

There's quite the debate about whether it's wise to plant Asclepias curassavica or not.

The Cockrell Butterfly Center in Texas has put out the following message about Mexican milkweed recently... Biologists studying monarchs have discovered that tropical milkweed may be a factor in the spread of a parasitic infection that attacks monarchs. The infection is called Oe (short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) and is transmitted by spores that fall from an infected female’s body onto the hostplant when she lays her eggs. The hatchling caterpillars eat the spores along with the leaves, and become infected themselves. After a generation or two or three, the infection level becomes so high that the butterfly dies (sometimes in the caterpillar stage, sometimes in the pupal stage, and sometimes as the adult).

This could happen with any milkweed – the problem with the tropical species is that it does not senesce (die back) in Houston’s mild winters but is perennial, growing throughout the year. In contrast, native species die back to the ground in the winter, and when they regrow in the spring they are spore free – so the infection cycle is broken.

Also, researchers have found that some monarchs in the southern part of the USA don’t bother to migrate if they have milkweed available. These year-round residents have been found to have very high levels of Oe infection, because they are mostly using the tropical milkweed species generation after generation. While this probably doesn’t greatly impact the migration as a whole, we don’t want to contribute to the local spread of the disease.

If you do already have tropical milkweed, one solution is to cut it back severely a couple of times a year. Even better is to remove the tropical variety and switch to native milkweed species. Unfortunately, so far these are not widely available in the nursery trade and are not as easy to grow as the tropical variety!

 

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