Mother Nature’s Majesty 

A few years back I began brainstorming a butterfly garden.  I pictured it being off to the side of the house, where there is a window … and perhaps a built in bench could be made inside, where the girls could butterfly gaze and see all the magic occur while sitting on fluffy pillows.

I researched a little about the plants they ate, and the habitats in which they thrive.  I laid down some weed barrier fabric and got some dirt, and some mulch and I was ready to go to the Rainbow Nursery to find some butterfly-attracting plants. 

And then a little overwhelm set in.  Because you should have plants for all stages of the butterfly’s life, not just the adult phase … and how would I keep the neighbor’s cat out of the side yard, our shared fence is its perch … ? …  and Milkweed likes full sun but that spot where I want to put it gets mostly shade … and are there really such things as butterfly houses? 

And then another season came and went.  And another.

Then one day a few months back, we were at Armstrong’s Garden Center, where a lot of daydreaming happens and little is bought, and the girls found a caterpillar.  A creepy crawly, cute, free, but kinda fuzzy looking caterpillar. 

I agreed to let them bring it with us, as long as I didn’t have to hold it; we stopped and bought it a home from the reptile aisle at PetSmart on our way back to the house.   

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A quick thumbing through Google … paper towel at the bottom (check), some leaves and twigs (check), and I was excited about the thought of the girls getting to see metamorphosis take place.  After they went to bed I decided to find out what kind of caterpillar we had.  

It was a Monarch caterpillar!! 

The Monarch is what I had done the most research on, what inspired the trip to the nursery for the milkweed before I knew it needed full sun (and came back empty handed).  But the Monarch caterpillar only eats milkweed leaves, and so there I stood in a caterpillar conundrum.  It was late, no ability to find milkweed that night, and I would be working all day the next day; we should have kept it where it had everything it needed to survive.

Because our babysitter is so cool, she was able to find Milkweed for us the next day, and she swapped out the foliage untouched by the larva and replaced it with its more preferable cuisine.  A full 24 hours with no food: we weren’t sure it would make it.  But I cleaned its home when I got off work and saw that it ate parts of a leaf or two.  The anticipation was starting to build.  How cool would it be to see it from start to finish, become a butterfly?

The next morning we woke up and it was dead.

We should have kept it where it had everything it needed to survive.

The milkweed plant is doing well in the back yard, I moved it back about 2 feet to where it gets full light and its leaves are now always perked up toward the sun.  It is still in its original pot, as I’m unsure exactly where it will go.  But it is next to my Purple Haze Butterfly Bush, which is also seemingly happy where it is at.  

I realize that my butterfly garden is not exactly what I imagined, nor where I imagined it to be, but it is taking shape in its own way.

And one day, one beautiful day, my family and I got to witness the fluttering wings of orange, gold and black, traverse awkwardly across our patio and into my impromptu Butterfly Garden and onto a leaf of the milkweed plant.  I was breathless.  We watched it go from one plant to the other, then back several times, pauses in between, with random bouts of flight that resembled the kind of fragility of a toddler’s first steps.  Holding our breaths as it fluttered around, we would watch it navigate the wind, glide, drop, then flutter, then land again where it could take in the nectar it worked so hard to arrive at.  Then we would stop holding our breaths and whisper about it, walk around to get a better look at it, take pictures, try to get closer, then jump once again as it took flight while we held our breath.  At least ten minutes we sat there, taking in the life of the Monarch on an warm October afternoon.

It was as majestic as its name implies.

I ought to listen to myself less, more often.  All that butterfly garden planning got me no where except stumped, though perhaps a bit more educated in an input-overload kind of way.  But saying “yes” to a caterpillar companion led to a series of events that allowed for me to collect and build upon this informal garden, dictated to and rewarded by Mother Nature herself … for she always seems to know just what we need.  


Some facts about the Monarch:

*It has a look-alike, the Viceroy.  The main difference is a black line on the hindwing that the Viceroy has, and the Monarch does not.  

*Their life span is described in terms of “generations”: the first generation Monarchs arrive in the spring, traveling northward in hunt for the Milkweed as it starts to grow in Northern and Eastern United States and Southern Canada. They mate, lay eggs and die with a life span of roughly 8 weeks. The second generation Monarchs then hatch, metamorphose, mate then lay eggs and die.  A third generation follows the same suit.  The fourth generation Monarch is the Migratory Monarch, and they have a longer life span of 7-9 months.

*Fourth Generation Monarchs migrate each winter to Southern California (eucalyptus trees) and/or Central Mexico (oyamel fir trees) to warmer climates as they cannot survive in colder climates of Northern US/Canada.  Some travel as far as 2,500 miles, and it is the only insect that migrates in this magnitude; this migration is essential for giving life to the next cycle of first generation monarchs and therefore is essential to its existence, period.  They go to the same trees each year, which is fascinating given that the previous years’ butterflies have since died. 

*Fourth Generation Monarchs are genetically different than its preceding generations: in short, they hatch with immature sex organs and undergo diapause, or a delay in reproductive development.  This generation is focused on finding nectar migrating southward where they can catch the warm winds and glide auto-pilot-style to their Mexican/Californian destination where they go into a torpor, or light hibernation,  from November until March.  The warmer weather of early spring then becomes their signal to head back north.  They find the nearest milkweed plant, and lay the eggs of the next cycle’s first generation Monarchs, then die.


*The Monarch population has been decreasing steadily over the past decade, worse-so in the past three years; an all time low record of migratory Monarchs were recorded in Mexico last winter of 2013.  They are currently being submitted for a “Threatened Species” title.

*To help, it is simple: plant milkweed.  Mother Nature will reward you, too.  


 © Houseman 2013