Journal

Monarch Butterflies

On a balmy September day in 2002, I was standing in a field in Central Virginia, watching brilliant orange Monarch butterflies float by like leaves that refused to fall. They stopped just long enough to sip some nectar from wild field asters—fuel for their long migration south.

Sweetgum Horticulture | Boston | Monarch ButterflyOn a balmy September day in 2002, I was standing in a field in Central Virginia, watching brilliant orange Monarch butterflies float by like leaves that refused to fall. They stopped just long enough to sip some nectar from wild field asters—fuel for their long migration south.

Two months later, I was standing on top of a mountain in the state of Michoacan in central Mexico, looking at mist-shrouded trees covered with thousands of Monarch butterflies. They hung still, their wings folded so that they showed no color, waiting. Suddenly the sun broke through, and the butterflies were spurred into flight. The air was full of fiery orange wings, flapping delicately in the rays of sunshine. It was incredible to think that some of these butterflies could be the same ones I had watched preparing for their journey in that far-off field in Virginia.

Three years ago, I was delighted when some milkweed plants volunteered Sweetgum Horticulture | Wellesley | Monarch Caterpillars(meaning they grew without being planted by me) in my garden. They are a bit unkempt looking, but the flowers have an amazing fragrance. More importantly, the caterpillars of the monarch butterfly depend exclusively on the foliage of milkweed plants for food. As the plants grew, my children and I examined them daily for signs of life. After observing tiny orange aphids for several weeks, as well as a few kinds of red insects that live exclusively on milkweed plants, we were finally rewarded with several tiny striped Monarch caterpillars. We checked on their progress every day, watching them grow longer and plumper on their diet of milkweed.

Sweetgum Horticulture | Metro West | Garden for ChildrenOne day the caterpillars were nowhere to be found, so we began to look for the chrysalises, which are jade green and etched with what looks like real gold. Despite their striking coloration, the chrysalises were well hidden and we could not find them. On a sunny afternoon a few weeks later, we came outside to find three adult Monarch butterflies unfolding from their chrysalises at the exact same time, on shrubs a few feet away from the milkweed plants. Damp and weak, the butterflies rested on the shrubs for several hours until they were able to fly. Soon they too would join the long migration south to their overwintering grounds in Mexico.

I can identify wild milkweed plants that you might be lucky enough to have already growing on your property. In Sweetgum Horticulture | Garden Design | Monarch Butterflyaddition, I can design a garden for you that is full of different milkweed species for the caterpillars to feed on, as well as flowers that provide nectar for the butterflies. We can even get your garden registered as an official Monarch Waystation, and you can track the migration of the Monarchs through a few different websites. Like thousands of other people, you can witness the incredible journey of a tiny caterpillar from your yard all the way to a mountain in Mexico.

 

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