The monarch butterfly, with its striped orange-and-black wings, is an iconic symbol of nature. Monarchs are the most recognized, and beloved, butterfly because of their amazing annual migration and because they were once a familiar sight across the eastern U.S.
Over the past few decades, monarch populations have declined significantly. A prime reason? A plant called milkweed is the only place where monarchs will lay their eggs, and it’s the only thing monarch caterpillars eat. But agriculture and development mean milkweed is disappearing at a massive rate, and the monarch is disappearing along with it—up to 90 percent of their population, some studies show.
The good news is that we can all help monarchs by planting milkweed in our yards, green spaces and community gardens. And thanks to a collaboration between area businesses and civic leaders, getting milkweed will be easier than ever.
Bell Nursery, a flower and plant company whose main greenhouses are based in Burtonsville, Montgomery County, is the mid-Atlantic region’s largest wholesale nursery grower, producing tens of millions of plants each year for The Home Depot. Now, Bell is adding milkweed to its roster, making them available for purchase to Home Depot customers across the region.
It all started when Montgomery County resident Barbara Ashe realized what the monarch was up against. As executive vice president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, Ashe tapped into her local business network to see what could be done.
“Like many residential gardeners, I purchase plants, not seeds, when planting my backyard garden. However, the milkweed was not stocked at my local Home Depot where I often shop for my spring plantings,” Ashe said. “So, I contacted Bell Nursery which provides plants to Home Depot stores and asked if they would consider growing them and making it available to customers to buy as a plant.”
Bell Nursery is a company with a track record of forward-thinking environmental practices. Among these are keeping operations free of the neonicotinoids class of pesticides. “We’ve always worked hard to reduce the use of pesticides of our operation,” said Bell Nursery CEO Gary Mangum. “We’re one of the first in the nation to adopt integrated pest management.”
More readily available milkweed plants can make an immediate impact for monarchs.
“The good thing about milkweed is that the monarch butterfly is very effective at finding it, so even small patches matter,” Ashe said. “If it’s in a backyard or a schoolyard, individual people can make a difference.”
That’s why efforts like this one, which could be expanded if successful, are critical, according to Dan Ashe, Barbara Ashe’s husband and the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We’ve become very good at weed control, particularly in the agricultural heartland and in urban and suburban environments, including here in Montgomery County,” Dan Ashe said. “Milkweed is a casualty of that, and without milkweed you cannot have the monarch butterfly. It’s important that we get people focused on that.”
Bell Nursey supplying milkweed to Home Depot means that County residents will have an easier time finding the plants needed to build a monarch friendly garden. Learn how to get started with your garden by downloading the Gardening for Monarchs guide (PDF).
The milkweed initiative is just the latest in a line of green innovations from Bell Nursery.
“I’m always looking for ways to improve the sustainability of our operations in cost-neutral ways,” said Cole Mangum, Bell’s vice president of production. “There is a lot of opportunity to do that in the business world.”
For instance, everyone is familiar with the ubiquitous plastic pots, trays, and tags dotting the garden section of any home-improvement store. At local Home Depot locations, customers return those plastics to stores for recycling, courtesy of Bell. In 2015 alone, Bell recycled almost 750,000 pounds of material.
Other sustainability initiatives include:
Recently, Bell was recognized as Visionary of the Year by the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce at its Annual Dinner. Gary Mangum used the platform to raise awareness about the plight of the Monarch. But he did more than that – Bell donated 600 potted milkweed plants to guests and encouraged them to do their part. The gesture put a green exclamation point to the evening giving Mangum’s sustainability message some legs (or, as the case may be, wings)!
By Scott Harris. Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Montgomery County and covers the environment and other topics. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Geographic video on monarchs: