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Etna workshop strives to encourage gardeners to plant milkweed for monarchs

| Monday, June 19, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Purple milkweed
Jessica Walliser
Purple milkweed
A monarch caterpillar eating its only food source, which is milkweed.
Bruce Siskawicz | Trib Total Media
A monarch caterpillar eating its only food source, which is milkweed.
Milkweed is featured in a new garden at the Penn State Master Gardener Demonstration Gardens at Donohoe Center in Greensburg.
Milkweed is featured in a new garden at the Penn State Master Gardener Demonstration Gardens at Donohoe Center in Greensburg.

Roxanne Swann has witnessed a decline in the monarch butterfly population in her time working as an Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania plant center coordinator.

“When I first started six years ago, we used to have to cover up our seedlings because the monarch caterpillars were eating them — we had to protect them a little bit, Swann said. “Now, we're really lucky to just see a few on our seedlings, and we don't cover them up at all because we are now more concerned about those little guys getting some food.”

According to the National Wildlife Federation, the monarch population has declined by approximately 90 percent in the last two decades.

Swann will address this issue during the Audubon Society's free “Milkweed & Monarchs” presentation at 10:30 a.m. June 24 at the Clarence Fugh Memorial Park in Etna.

Milkweed is the only plant that the monarch caterpillar can eat.

“There are so many plants in the world, but it (the monarch caterpillar) can only eat one species, which is asclepias, or milkweed. The adult butterfly can nectar on different species of flowers,” said Swann, who works at the Audubon Center for Native Plants at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve in Fox Chapel.

She said causes for the orange-and-black butterfly's population decline include habitat loss, drought and loss of milkweed.

“Farmers used to leave it (milkweed) in their fields, but now they are growing things until the very edges and there is a lot less of a kind of transition zone.”

Furthermore, she said people do not realize its importance, so they unearth it.

Swann will offer attendees free milkweed seeds, courtesy of a state Department of Environmental Protection grant, which has provided funding for 14 local presentations and the distribution of 1,200 milkweed plants and 1,500 milkweed seed packets this year.

The seeds are difficult to germinate, she said, but once the plant is mature, “you pretty much let nature take care of it.”

The Audubon Center for Native Plants carries four varieties of milkweed seedlings, but often sells out quickly. Interested parties are advised to call 412-963-6100, ext. 17 to ensure it is available prior to visiting.

The Blawnox, Etna and Sharpsburg Joint Shade Tree Commission is sponsoring the event, which will coincide with “National Pollinator Week,” as designated by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior.

“Pollinators, butterflies, bees, even other animals like frogs and birds, these animals are environmental indicators,” Swann said, noting the importance of the monarch butterfly's plight. “When their populations are struggling or having health issues or declining, it's a direct indication of what's going on in the environment.”

“We're really happy to be involved with this and connect the community to the importance of the (milkweed) plant with the insect.”

Erica Cebzanov is a Tribune-Review contributor.

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