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Go out and plant some milkweed

By Susan and Biff Andrews

If you plant it, they will come — monarch butterflies, that is.

This spring we decided to start a little pollinator garden, just because we think butterflies are really cool, and it makes us happy when we see one.

We had visions of clouds of butterflies laying their eggs while leisurely sipping nectar from gigantic clusters of pink flowers, as shown in the butterfly brochures.

The reality: Our little plot of flowers wasn’t what you’d call a roaring success. We don’t specialize in sunshine in our yard, and the spot we selected mostly gets afternoon sun, which isn’t the best, especially when the heat of summer settles in.

So it didn’t turn into the floribunda butterfly magnet we’d envisioned. Dried-up flowers on a cemetery plot would best describe it. In fact, we didn’t see a single butterfly in there at all.

Close to our little experimental garden, we planted swamp milkweed from a local garden festival, hoping it would be the right kind, but we didn’t have much confidence that a monarch might fly past the backyard the first go-round and think our little patch of four milkweed plants had some promise as a great place to lay some eggs.

Well, fast-forward to mid-September, and who should show up on the milkweed but our little buddy in the picture. We were smitten. We’ve been checking on him every day, and he is longer and fatter each time we see him.

To learn more about our handsome caterpillar buddy, Biff and I visited the Freedom Park Interpretive Center on Saturday, where Master Naturalist, butterfly enthusiast and Surry County gal Joni Carlson taught a class called The Butterfly Garden: Strategic Plants that Attract and Raise Butterflies, as part of the center’s “Learn and Grow Educational Series,” sponsored by the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

We learned about the butterfly life cycle, that butterflies need nectar plants for energy and host plants on which to lay eggs. And we learned a lot about native milkweed plants.

But most important, we learned that the monarch population is in sharp decline due to loss of habitat. Milkweed is a vital part of that habitat.

Joni brought lots of living examples of plants and butterflies with her, and at the end of the class she took the group out to tag and release some Monarchs. We’ve tagged fish and watched experts tag birds, but butterflies — that was a new one.

Citizen scientists like Joni are tagging Monarchs to study their migratory path and to understand why their populations are declining. A small round sticker with a registered ID number is gently placed on the upper part of the butterfly’s wing, and it is released into the air.

It takes four generations of Monarchs to complete the migration from Mexico across the U.S. to Canada and then back to Mexico. One of Joni’s handouts says it this way: “Four generations, three countries, three thousand miles, two wings and a prayer.”

For more information about Monarchs and how you can help, visit www.monarchwatch.org, and then go out and plant some milkweed. You’ll make the world a better place — or at least the butterfly world.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.