Connecting with Nature: St. John Monarchs and Milkweed

It turns out we have local varieties of both, and need to protect them.

When Angie Dunson and Michael Riska, frequent St. John visitors, were walking on Bordeaux Mountain in March, they saw bunches of tropical milkweed along the side of the road. They are self-described “plant nerds” and recognized the pretty flowers as Asclepias curassavica, because they have planted it at their home in Delaware, along with several other types of milkweed.

As they continued their walk they were dismayed to see someone clearing the side of the road with a weed-whacker, tearing up the little milkweed plants. They asked him to spare them, explaining that the plants were important for the monarch butterflies, which were flitting around on the flowers. They were pleased when he complied – and then contacted the Tradewinds to spread the word about protecting these plants.


Monarch caterpillar eating a tropical milkweed leaf.

Though monarchs butterflies can get nectar from different flowers (I have seen them on my bougainvillea), they exclusively use milkweed for laying their eggs. When the young caterpillars hatch, they eat up almost the whole plant.

What’s in it for the milkweed? Mostly they get reliable pollination of their flowers so they can reproduce successfully, as long as enough of the seeds get spread (and they don’t lose their habitat, or get sprayed with poisons or weed-whacked).

I knew there were special monarch butterflies in the Virgin Islands, ones that do not migrate in the complicated way the continental ones do. Because there is usually food here all year, they don’t need to engage in those exhausting and treacherous travels.

However, the tropical plant looks nothing like the ones I know from the Northeast, with their thick leaves, heavy pods, and lavender flowers, even though genetically it is a close relative. Common Milkweed is Asclepias syriaca. Apparently there are 12 varieties altogether.

Monarch on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Right after I heard the story about the tropical milkweed on the Bordeaux road, my friend Joan Wilson mentioned that she had a whole mess of monarchs at her place up there, so I invited myself over for a photo shoot.

Joan had liked the pretty flowers, so she planted some seeds in her yard, not knowing about the plant’s special relationship with the monarchs. Now she has a spectacular butterfly breeding center.

Besides the caterpillars, I saw adult monarchs hooking up and mating.

And the fascinating chrysalis – the magic pod that emerges from the split-open body of the caterpillar and then is transformed into an adult butterfly. I wanted to stay all day.

The skin of the monarch caterpillar breaks open and reveals the chrysalis, where the butterfly will form.

When I finally left, Joan gave me a few seeds to take home. I am hoping the plants will grow down at our salty sea level lot, as well as up on the mountain.

If you see them, or the monarch butterflies, anywhere around St. John, please be sure to treat them with proper respect, recognizing their roles in the ongoing miracle of metamorphosis.

Photos by Gail Karlsson. Gail is an environmental lawyer, and author of The Wild Life in an Island House, plus the guide book Learning About Trees and Plants – A Project of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John.  For more articles and local information, go to or  Contact: Instagram:@gailkarlsson