Save the Monarch: Plant a Milkweed!

milkweed

Last year Ms. Jeannie traveled approximately 13,000 miles via car over the course of 52 weeks. Last year the North American monarch butterfly traveled 3,000 miles via wing over the course of nine weeks. Ms. Jeannie mainly drove around her neighborhood and her city with a few side trips around the state. Butterfly flew halfway across the North American continent, traveling through at least six United States, one Canadian province, and half of Mexico.

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On average last year Ms. Jeannie traveled about 39 miles a day via car. On average last year, Butterfly traveled 47 miles per day via wing on her two and half month road trip. Ms. Jeannie’s car runs on gasoline which brought her to the fill-up station about 120 times over the course of the year. Butterfly runs on nectar which brought her to the fill-up station about eight times during the course of her journey.

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Ms. Jeannie’s car is an incredible piece of machinery able to get her from here to there on a whim’s notice.  But Ms. Jeannie’s car is nothing compared to the flying machine that encapsulates the strength and stamina of a migrating monarch. Butterfly’s migration is one of nature’s most epic adventures, which is why you’ll find a photo of her pinned to Ms. Jeannie’s true adventurers board on Pinterest. That’s the place where all of history’s great travelers and outside-of-the-box thinkers congregate and where Ms. Jeannie heads when she needs a little inspiration.

A partal list of true adventurers. Clockwise from top left: Photographer Imogen Cunningham, Elizabeth Taylor, Monarch Butterfly, Explorer Tom Crean, Aviator Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Explorer Jacques Cousteau. To visit Ms. Jeannie's board and see all the adventurers click the photo.
A partial list of true adventurers… clockwise from top left: photographer Imogen Cunningham, actress Elizabeth Taylor, epic traveler Monarch Butterfly, explorer Tom Crean, aviator Anne Morrow Lindbergh and explorer Jacques Cousteau. To visit Ms. Jeannie’s board and see all the adventurers click the photo.

Along with all icons who undertake brave and unbelievable feats there is almost always a strong support system behind them.  Julia Child had her husband Paul, Jacques Cousteau had a research foundation, Anne Frank had her diary. And so it goes with butterflies. Monarch has the milkweed.

Vintage 1953 botanical print of the showy milkweed painted by Mary Vaux Walcott.
This vintage 1953 botanical print of the showy milkweed painted by Mary Vaux Walcott is availiable in Ms. Jeannie’s shop. 

Bright, beautiful and stately in size (up to 6 feet tall!), the milkweed plant is where Butterfly takes refuge. It’s the one place that not only offers a safe and idyllic spot to lay her eggs but it also offers the only source of nourishment to her babies in the form of a food when the wee ones are in the larval stage.

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It’s the fill-up station for the winged world delicates!  There used to be billions of monarch butterflies floating around our skies, but now there are only millions. Their significant decline in numbers is due in part to the disappearance of the milkweed plant. Commercial farming and urbanization has cleared the earth in important areas along the migratory trail of the butterflies and the resting spots where they congregate making it increasingly more difficult for monarch butterflies to reach maturity.

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Not having enough milkweed plants to butterflies is like not having enough gas stations for cars. Each needs the other and each won’t operate without the help of the other.  So this is where you come in… as a cheerleader, support staffer, tribe member and all around champion of the mighty monarch you can make an immediate difference in the life of a winged wonder by planting milkweed seeds in your garden or your balcony flower pots or by scattering seeds in grass lots around your neighborhood. It doesn’t matter if you live in California, or New York, Arizona or Maine all milkweed plantings in all states help one cause. You’ll be sustaining the lives of migrating butterflies as well as assisting other pollinators that bring so much benefit to so many other creatures both in and out of the garden.

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There’s also an added bonus to being helpful. Milkweed flowers are beautiful! Available in a range of colors from red orange to pink to pale peach they are named after the milk colored latex coursing through their stems (a defense mechanism), which makes them unattractive to chewing worms.

Vintage Wildflower Guide published in 1948 by Edgar T. Wherry. Read more about this book here.
There was lots of interesting milkweed information in this vintage wildflower guide published in 1948 by Edgar T. Wherry. Read more about this book here.

Much prettier than any gas station or rest stop area for cars, these fill-up stations for butterflies have been around since the 17th century and contain over 140 different varieties. As a family they are known as Asclepias with a petal layout complexity most closely associated to that of orchids.  As one of nature’s most intricate flowers they are made up of a collection of petals on a spray of delicate stems that eventually meet in one main stalk – sort of like the flower head of Queen Anne’s Lace or a loose version of the flowering garlic bulb. Leaves also range in color depending on the variety from silver green to dark emerald.

seed pods!

When the milkweed goes to seed it forms a pod of white silky hairlike plumes that launch on a breezy day, spreading seed around the neighborhood like pin-sized snowdrops. Imagine a whole gigantic field blowing in the wind at once – it would a veritable summer storm of beauty!

Easy to grow and care for, you can find seeds for under $2.00 a pack at Botanical Interests (Ms. Jeannie’s favorite seed company) or at your local garden center. March – May are perfect times to plant Milkweed in time for fall harvest and fall migration.

Seed starting indoors!
Seed starting indoors!

If you are a travel lover like Ms. Jeannie, you’ll appreciate the need to help our fellow flying friends get to where they need to go. Road trippers need to look out for one another on the highways of life, so Ms. Jeannie hopes that you will join her this summer in the great garden challenge – Milkweed for the Monarchs! Throughout the spring and summer she’ll be keeping you updated on her butterfly garden’s progress. It would be incredible if you did too:)

To see just how exciting it is to help and host butterflies, visit Ms. Jeannie’s 2013 archives when the season of the swallowtails unfolded week by week right here on the blog.

Happy helping dear readers!

*All butterfly photos courtesy of pinterest.

 

 

 

From Caterpillars to Cocoons: Ms. Jeannie’s Nature Show

Oh the butterflies did not prove to disappoint, dear readers! Three little caterpillars built their nests in Ms. Jeannie’s garden, and they did it, so kindly, right where she could see them!

On Tuesday, she went out to water and noticed that all the caterpillars had vanished. Well, all except one who was still hanging out on the parsley. He had been in that same spot for quite a few days although this day, Ms. Jeannie saw two little spider web like threads projecting from each side of his bright little body.  When she checked on him in the evening, this is what she found…

A cocoon!
A cocoon!

If she hadn’t known exactly the spot to look for the caterpillar she would have missed him completely. He has built a cocoon which totally blends in with his surroundings –  an overturned parsley sprig – so he matches the pale underside exactly. Here’s another view…

Would you have noticed him in a passing glance?
Would you have noticed him in a passing glance?

You can see the little threads here too that keep him anchored to the stalk. This sort of reminds Ms. Jeannie of rock climbers who propel mountains with their thin little safety ropes.

Knowing that all the other caterpillars might have gone on their search for long grasses or house foundations or dead tree limbs to find their nesting site, she looked in all the areas around the pots. Not sure how far a caterpillar could travel or would travel for such a task, she just looked a few yards around each pot. Guess where she found caterpillar number 2?

On the back of her spinach sign!
On the back of her spinach sign!

Ms. Jeannie thinks this one might be the Einstein of the bunch. That was a pretty good place to nest as it backs up to the side of the house.  Here he is…

Check out his color!
Check out his color!

Notice how he has completely camouflaged himself to match the wood grain. There are even little striations in his cocoon that match the light and dark veins of the wood. Even more amazing is that from an aerial viewpoint, the “belly” of his cocoon matches the green leaves of the gerber daisies down below, so again if you were passing by quickly you would just think it was a leaf or something similar.

From a different angle.
From a different angle.

Caterpillars build their cocoons to protect themselves during the chrysalis stage. Sometimes the cocoon shells are hard and sometimes they are soft (Ms. Jeannie is afraid to poke at her three in case she breaks the threads, so she hasn’t investigated this aspect further)  but they are all made out of silk produced by the caterpillars.

Now knowing that they are such good camouflagers, Ms. Jeannie made one last careful check of the pots to see if she could find any others. That’s when she found this last one…

The prettiest spot!
The prettiest spot!

If Ms. Jeannie was a caterpillar she would have picked this spot too – right underneath the flower petals. Clearly, this little one was all about having a lovely view! She gets an “A” in the camouflage department too…

Notice the sun stripes!
Notice the sun stripes!

They create cases that blend in to their surroundings so that hopefully they can go unnoticed by predators such as birds and lizards. It’s amazing to think that they will live in these cocoons for a couple of weeks when all that tethers them are those two thin strings. Hardly, it seems, they would be able to stand up to a wind storm or even a summer rain storm. Ms. Jeannie has even taken to watering her containers down at the base, just so her sprinkler wand won’t interfere! Of course they must be strong little threads, just like the webs of spiders, but still, Ms. Jeannie would hate to be the cause of their demise.

So the next step in the butterfly cycle, if all goes well, will be the emergence of each butterfly in the next 10 days or so.  According to research, most butterflies like to emerge in the early morning to give their wings a chance to dry out in the weaker light of the morning sun before flying off. Ms. Jeannie would love to capture that moment on camera so she is crossing her fingers (yet again!) for that experience.

Stay tuned for Part Three of this mini-series!

Crunch, Crunch, Crunch…

…crunch…crunch…crunch…

What’s that in the garden, Ms. Jeannie hears?

someone's been enjoying the garden greens...
someone’s been enjoying the garden greens…

It appears as if someone’s dived into the salad bar in the garden! The feasting is happening in the parsley plant that Ms. Jeannie just blogged about the other day. Do you remember this…

Parsley, spinach and gerbers!

That was the parsley plant just 9 days ago. And now this is what it looks like today…

it's a stem garden!
it’s a stem garden!

Oh dear! What happened you ask? Well, my darlings, it seems Ms. Jeannie’s been invaded by these little characters…

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The culprits!

The swallowtail butterflies. Or, to be more exact, the infants of  swallowtail butterflies.

Upon first spotting them, Ms. Jeannie had to make an immediate decision – save the parsley or propagate the butterflies. Apparently in nature you cannot have both! This turned out to be an easy decision for Ms. Jeannie. After all,  parsley is not nearly as exciting as a butterfly (sorry green leafy friends), even though her herb did look beautiful and bountiful next to the gerber daisies and spinach.

Once she became pro butterfly, Ms. Jeannie began to thoroughly enjoy her new dinner guests. They are quite cute in that young baby way, with their fat bellies and their energetic ways.

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This is the last stage of babyhood for these guys. They are ferociously devouring the parsley (oh the eating habits of teenagers!) so that they can build enough strength, stamina and sustenance to cocoon themselves for the nest few weeks while they grow into butterflies.

Ms. Jeannie is seriously hoping that they cocoon  in the pot, but she’s not sure what the game plan is for that stage. Research says they like long grasses or house foundations, somewhere away from the birds. Ms. Jeannie has both of those nearby but how would she ever find them in the long grasses?

Ms. Jeannie looks forward to seeing the butterflies emerge and hopefully spend a little time in her garden once they’ve winged out.

Once they are at that stage, they’ll look like this…

Swallowtail Butterfly photograph by Michelle Reynolds
Swallowtail Butterfly photograph by Michelle Reynolds. Click for info.

Butterflies in mythology have long symbolized renewal. Perhaps Ms. Jeannie is cultivating some new changes in her life, or perhaps it’s just nature taking its course. Every summer it seems like there is some magical event that occurs over and over again in Ms. Jeannie’s life, a theme if you will, or a special situation that heralds that specific year with a specific reference. Last year it was the summer of the cows, the year before that, it was the summer of the fireworks. Ms. Jeannie would be thrilled if this was the summer of the butterflies:)

If all goes well with her brood, she’ll have just under a dozen butterflies, floating on the mid-summer breeze. Keep your fingers crossed! Adult butterflies impact the environment most actively by pollinating plants and flowers which is why they are beneficial to have in your garden. Even though they have short life spans, most just a few weeks, they can bring endless joy to a garden for seasons and spirits long after they are gone.

Ms. Jeannie never fails to be amazed and surprised by the sight of a butterfly. For such a fragile creature to last for weeks, let alone minutes in our environment astounds her. Perhaps that’s why they are so magical. They start out camouflaged en masse, creeping and crawling, but one by one they turn inward, wrapping themselves in their own comforter, stewing in their own protection, before emerging a changed creature, light and independent.  They are the best case scenarios, the happy endings, the freedoms of ability that is at the root of all human yearnings.

Ms. Jeannie is glad to have a little part in the continuation of such symbolism and hope in her little corner of the world.

The Lamb and the Butterfly via pinterest
The Lamb and the Butterfly via pinterest

More on the butterflies  (hopefully) coming soon!