I attended college at UC Santa Barbara, and my very first apartment was just outside of campus in Goleta, CA. My neighborhood there butted up against a chunk of undeveloped land peppered with trails that led all through and eventually down to the beaches there. I felt very fortunate to live so close to such a place and spent a lot of time exploring and running on those trails, always taking different directions and footpaths to see where they would take me. One afternoon, I was doing just this, running a trail, and all of a sudden, I stumbled into a eucalyptus grove that was alive with monarch butterflies. Stunned and all alone, it was just I and the butterflies, the flipping of their wings dripping from every leaf, every branch, and ‘puddling’ in various spots on the grove floor. It was magic, and I have never ever forgotten it.
What I didn’t know then was that I had probably stumbled into what is now the Goleta Butterfly Grove; at the time, I was totally unaware of its existence (it wasn’t designated as such until 2005, several years after I would have been there). But that beautiful, spiritual, quiet moment has haunted me ever since, and is a large part of what bothers me so much about the current decline of these incredible creatures.
First things first; a bit of information on the monarch…
The monarch butterflies comprise two separate but similar migratory patterns in the US: one west of the Rocky Mountains, and one east. The smaller western migration consists of generations of butterflies that overwinter in coastal California (anywhere from just north of San Francisco to as far south as Mexico). In the spring, the migration moves up through the Central Valley and Sierra Nevadas of California, up into Oregon, Washington, and even sometimes as far north as British Columbia. In the fall, a special generation of monarchs are born; ones that live up to 8 months. These special butterflies make the long move back down to their sites in California where they stay until spring. These are the butterflies that I have grown up with in Los Angeles, that filled my childhood backyard, that I witnessed in the eucalyptus grove in Santa Barbara, and are the very butterflies that now visit the Farmhouse garden. These monarchs and I go way back.
The eastern monarch migration is the stuff of legends, with its individuals traveling possibly as many as 3,000 miles in a season! The special migratory generation of butterflies begin in the US and Canada when milkweed and nectar sources begin to die back in the fall, and will then fly all the way to overwinter in Mexico. In the spring, they make their way from Mexico north to the US Gulf Coast, where native milkweed is just beginning to bloom, and it is here that they lay their eggs and start the next generation. Sometimes up to three generations will successively travel north, following the bloom of the milkweed back to their predecessors’ starting points.
This is where milkweed (genus Asclepias) becomes really important. It is on this that the females must lay their eggs, as it is the only thing that the larvae (caterpillars) can eat.
So what is happening to these butterflies (and so many other invertebrate pollinators)?
The Xerces Society website states:
In 2008, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), a tri-national organization covering the United States, Canada, and Mexico established by the North American Free Trade Agreement, published the North American Monarch Conservation Plan. The Plan identifies several factors that have contributed to the steady decline of monarchs across their native range:
• loss of overwintering sites in Mexico due to deforestation;
• degradation of overwintering habitat in Mexico due to forest fires, diversion of water for human use, and poorly-regulated tourist activity;
• loss of overwintering sites in California due to development;
• degradation of overwintering habitat in California due to aging trees;
• loss of breeding habitat due to the ongoing decline of native milkweeds (Asclepias spp.), their larval host plants; and
• disease, parasitism, and predation.
Additionally, The Xerces Society states:
In the western U.S., overwintering populations of monarchs along the California coast have declined from over 1 million individuals counted at 101 sites in 1997 to less than 60,000 individuals counted at 74 sites in 2009. Most scientists believe that this decline is due to the loss of milkweed from a prolonged California drought and the extensive use of pesticides.
So what can we, as individuals, at home in our own gardens, realistically do to help? First and foremost, put down the pesticides and the herbicides. Just stop. It may be a little trickier sometimes to deal with pests and weeds organically, but we’re all better off for it. If you’re spraying for ants (even with some so-called ‘organic’ sprays) any other unlucky invertebrates that come into contact with that stuff are going to suffer the consequences. Pesticides don’t discriminate, even though their packaging would have you believe otherwise. Herbicides are just as bad, if not worse, because they tend to be broadcast in larger quantities across much larger areas; inevitably coming into contact with more organisms, and depleting vast sections of critical native vegetation (milkweed, anyone?). Additionally, they can hang around in plant tissue (especially when we’re talking plants that have been genetically modified to resist such products), soil, and ground water for a very long time. Ick. Beyond the negative impact on pollinators, do you really want to spray that stuff on your lawn and then let your kids and pets roll around in it? Don’t. Just don’t. If you simply must use them, apply them in careful, specific doses; avoid aimless, broad applications.
That brings us to the milkweed. Plant it. Wherever, whenever, however you can (for a fantastic article on planting milkweed, visit one of my favorite blogs: Julie’s Garden Delights). But proceed with caution when going out and buying milkweed plants: most nurseries still subscribe to conventional practices, which means that that beautiful milkweed plant you bought with the bestest of intentions (that may or may not even be the right variety for your region), may be doused in some awful chemicals. Chemicals that, until they run their course (which could be quite awhile) are going to do the exact opposite of what you intended the milkweed to do. So the safest option is to find out what species of milkweed is/are native to your region (there are more than a hundred varieties in the US), buy seeds, and grow it from scratch. Or find a reputable source for organic, native milkweed plants (don’t know where to go for that?-see below!).
Monarchwatch.org has an excellent list of milkweeds by state here, where you can figure out what kind you need to be growing in your yard. And even better: you can actually purchase flats of native milkweed plugs through them by going here. Huzzah!
MonarchJointVenture.org lists some additional resources, and also a fabulous set of guidelines for planting and managing milkweed not only in home and public gardens, but also in agricultural areas (where milkweed populations have been notoriously wiped out), managed corridors, and natural and restored areas. Check out these guidelines here.
It has taken me a long time to get to planning, planting, and growing the Farmhouse38 garden (had to get the house renovation done first, and, as we all know, that still isn’t done). In fact, it has only been in the last two seasons or so that I have really gotten to give it a go. It was always my intention to make the garden a haven for pollinators, but most especially for monarchs. Two seasons ago, I went to my local big-name nursery and eagerly bought three mature Tropical Milkweed, (Asclepias curassavica) plants to put in my garden. My heart was in the right place, despite being a bit misguided. Firstly, this isn’t a native variety (for my region it is the Narrowleaf Milkweed, (Asclepias fascicularis). And secondly, I have no idea what sorts of nasty stuff the plants might have been treated with. I was clueless. Thirdly…well, three plants is just not enough. Plant as much of it as you can possibly stand and/or fit. If three plants is it, well, then that’s it, but if you can fit more, do it. In its natural state, milkweed grows in thick colonies, which not only provide ample food for the monarch larvae (as well as being a natural nectar source for a variety of pollinators), but offer much needed shelter. Ideally, your garden should have generous native milkweed interspersed with a wide variety of native, flowering plants (with staggered bloom times); milkweed for the babies to eat, nectar-filled blooms for the adults to feed off of, and plenty of shelter for all. I am working towards having milkweed planted in every single bed in my entire yard.
So what am I planting in the Farmhouse garden besides milkweed? I’m shooting for as many native flowering plants as possible. Xerces.org has an awesome list of regionally-specific native pollinator-friendly seed mixes here. Additionally, I’ve got many non-native pollinator-friendly ornamentals interspersed with vegetables and herbs (as I am also working towards having a self-sustainable vegetable garden as well as a bit of a cutting garden). It is important to plant your garden for continuous bloom; all pollinators need nectar sources spring, summer, and fall. Here is a really great article by the National Wildlife Federation with some guidelines on planting a butterfly-friendly garden.
In addition to plant selections, the NWF article lists several important non-botanical features that your butterfly garden should have; mainly, that butterflies need places to rest, and they need places to ‘puddle’. ‘Puddling’ is a behavior where butterflies congregate on damp sand or mud to drink water and draw minerals. Make sure there is a spot (or two) in your garden where they can do this, and if need be, place a low dish, filled with sand or soil, and keep it damp. Place rocks and twigs within reach of the sand for the butterflies to land safely on. Butterflies also require spots where they can stop and rest in the sun; recharge, if you will. Provide flat rocks that are placed where they receive around six hours of sun a day. This will ensure that the rock is always warm and welcoming to a little butterfly-style relaxation.
It was always my intention that once the garden was up and running and properly outfitted for monarchs and pollinators alike, I would have it certified as a Monarch Waystation. This is a wonderful program run by MonarchWatch.org that encourages the implementation of monarch-focused butterfly-gardening. Through their site, you can learn about the Monarch Waystation project, see guidelines for buidling a monarch-friendly garden, purchase Waystation seed kits, as well as certify your garden as an official Monarch Waystation. Done and done.
The plight of the monarchs is obviously a tiny, tiny facet of a broad, insidious epidemic. It isn’t just the monarchs suffering, it is many, if not all, invertebrate pollinators. They are a pivotal and now precarious support on the food chain, directly responsible for the pollination of over 2/3 of our food supply and reproduction of over 70% of the world’s flowering plants. Without them, we are in deep trouble. It is important that we sit up and pay attention, and become more responsible with our actions. The Monarch Joint Venture views the monarch as “a flagship species whose conservation will sustain habitats for pollinators and other plants and animals”; ie, if we all take the urgently necessary steps towards preservation of the monarchs’ habitat, we will be helping all the other little guys, as well.
Now will someone please help me down from this soapbox? Thanks.