When we planted our fields in native grasses and wildflowers, we included in the mix a large scoop of common milkweed seed. Milkweed: it’s that plant with the fluffy seeds that escape from pods and float through the air this time of year. As a child, I confused it with a dandelion seed head and would always try to catch it and make a wish. I thought it was magical.
Turns out, it is magical. It’s the only plant that Monarchs eat when they are in the caterpillar stage and the only one on which they lay their eggs. Unfortunately, it’s been rapidly disappearing from meadows, rural fence rows, and sides of roadways, thanks to Roundup® and urban sprawl. Studies estimate that the plant decreased 21 percent in the U.S. between 1995 and 2013.
And because it is disappearing, so are Monarch butterflies. Remember chasing monarchs as a child? Remember, how they were everywhere? In my memory, they were the most common of all the butterflies. But, despite our best efforts to plant the food they love, we’ve only seen a few on our farm this year. Every time I see one, I whip out my camera to capture it, but it always manages to fly off before I can press the camera icon, find my subject, and snap. It’s a gone girl.
I’ve also taken to inspecting the leaves of milkweed, hoping to find some tiny eggs or a host of caterpillars munching happily through the green leaves. Haven’t had much luck there either. Seems the milkweed contains a poison that the caterpillars have adapted to – but it stays in their bodies, making them poisonous to any predators.
My awareness of the plight of these beautiful creatures was heightened upon reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, whose plot hinges on an invasion of monarch butterflies in a small Tennessee Appalachian town.
It wasn’t until we visited the 270-acre Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens at Boothbay that I got a close up look at what I’ve been seeking all summer. There, among the beautiful flowers and plethora of milkweed, were hundreds of monarch butterflies, as well as plenty of yellow-and-black-stripped caterpillars, eating hungrily on the milkweed leaves.
And best of all, I got to see the lime green chrysalis, decorated with metallic gold dots, that hung from the wood siding of the various structures around the gardens.
I couldn’t take enough photos, Ed finally walking ahead of me back to our parked car as I called out: “Wait! Just one more. Just one more.”
So, to be perfectly transparent: Yes, I took all of these photos, but all were taken at the Botanical Gardens on our recent trip. None were captured at Farm Dover.
But even now, in mid-October, we occasionally see a lone monarch or two fluttering around the goldenrod and daisies in our fields. I wonder how much longer they will stick around before striking out on their up-to-3000-mile migration to Mexico. I hope the ones that make it, spread the word that there is plenty of milkweed at Farm Dover and invite their friends and family to come back to Kentucky next summer.
What fun it would be to have that most royal of all butterflies fluttering by!