Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Of monarch butterflies

Constancy of weather is my idea of perfect.

Switch on the sun machine, hold the temperature at seventy-five, wall off the wind and you have one happy girl. It's pure and simple bliss.

All this is the antithesis of a typical Minnesota spring. April, for instance, exhibits almost every possible combination of weather.

To make things even more interesting these conditions can be concurrent with each other. Like this past weekend, which ran the gamut of tornado sightings to snowfall.

A habitual early riser I'm "up and at'em" as was the call that my dad woke us to on Saturday mornings when some of us would rather have slept in.

It was this early training to shake a leg and get up, or my own general makeup, that gets my feet on the floor fast well before the others.

That's most of the time. There are mornings like today, however, when it takes easing into the day to get the motor running. I attribute this to the weather.

I learned long ago that I'm susceptible to weather changes. My body regards shifts in weather disruptive. It bears with but doesn't enjoy rapid turnabouts. In the Midwest where weather is mostly variable it can make for some disjointed days for me.

I take my cue from how I feel. Don't push the river, a phrase heard long ago, and leaving me puzzled then as to what it means, now is very clear.

There are times to go with the flow. Move with the day and it gets me to the end just as I wind up doing every other day.

This was such a day. I was going at it easy like. It occurred to me to look through my folders where ideas are saved for reviewing.

Al and I have been talking about creating a butterfly garden. I was sure we had material put away that addressed this subject.

Our interest in butterfly gardening goes way back. This latest enthusiasm stems from our trip to California.

We were in butterfly country. Central and southern California are wintering grounds of the delightful monarchs who add so much to our northern summer in their short adult span with us.

The sign we read at a California state beach told about the overwintering monarchs. Nearby on private property a colony of monarchs, or cluster as they're referred to, hibernate in a eucalyptus grove.

Monarchs make the trip of some 2500 miles from Canada and northern and eastern United States to California and Mexico in the fall. They rest in the southern climate for six to eight months.

This qualifies butterflies as long term snowbirds. In comparison the rest of us are lightweights. There's nothing too strenuous about our getting there. (No wing fatigue at any rate.) And we don't stay nearly as long.

The butterflies - arriving well before most of us show up - are among the last to leave. They're great tourism promoters and wonderful guests.

The eucalyptus tree in California is as essential to the welfare of the monarchs as the lowly milkweed is in the Midwest. In their summer home the caterpillars, also called larvae, feed upon the milkweed plant.

The eucalyptus tree and the milkweed, taken as symbols of the monarch butterfly, will either help ensure their survival or, by their loss and eradication, hasten a diminished population.

Wintering monarchs mate in the new year prior to their return voyage in the spring.
In the north they lay their eggs which hatch as caterpillars. Then comes the pupae stage before their metamorphosis into butterflies.

It's an amazing generational sequence. I'm glad it's their butterfly DNA and not ours that's at work here.

Monarchs alight on our imagination with their handsome appearance and airy grace. These orange and black butterflies are so beautiful with their strong soaring flight.

We're disarmed at their agility. They float and flit among summer blooms in our gardens. They epitomize freedom and spontaneity as they cartwheel through our yards on fine summer afternoons.

We marvel at the instinct that propels their flights. We fear for their vulnerability as they complete the distance through the elements, their energy sucked up in the mission which is to arrive safely. Not privy to human logic they follow nature's rule within them.

We're concerned as their habitat shrinks exponentially. The milkweed plant everywhere is disappearing.

Cities push out at the edges where fields once grew and weeds like milkweed flourished. Homeowners tidy their lawns with chemicals.

Dandelions (which Al calls the urban rose) are among the weeds we seek to oust. Only in certain places do they remain to weave sunshine into the green blades of grass.

Herbicide-resistant crops, pesticide use and zealous lawn care may or may not be factors in the dwindling monarch numbers. Studies are being done.

Certainly changes to butterfly habitat and bad weather, which has occurred in large outbreaks in recent years, play a part.

These insects - for such they are - are valiant. But they're not indestructible. Their armor is mighty thin.

Driving Pacific Coast Highway 1 earlier this month we stopped at awesome Ragged Point. The clifftop setting, with the ocean surf thunderously white and blue far below, and the plunging California slopes on the other side of the road, take your breath away.

We took in the views and walked the serene landscaped grounds of the classy inn. We could have settled in for a week and chucked the rest of our itinerary.

I was looking outward to the Pacific. Al with his camera was looking upward. He was seeing butterflies.

He said the monarchs looked bedraggled. They were doing half-hearted semicircles around some of the tall flowering beauties he had first put his camera lens on.

Maybe it was the coastal wind that was giving them a hammering. Perhaps they were preparing for the flight north. They were testing their wings.

They might have wondered if the long haul was worth it. Yet they'd be ready when the signal went out.

"The butterflies are beat," I echoed Al's observation. "It stands to reason." I surveyed this southern gateway to the Big Sur. I was mentally turning the pages of On the Road, the mid twentieth century classic by Jack Kerouac.

The Beat generation, epitomized by Kerouac through his life and writings, is powerfully associated with Big Sur country. He and others spent time here finding themselves or losing themselves and maybe some of each.

Their lives were as heady as the redwoods and as deep and dark as the canyons that run with spring torrents.

The stories punched out on Kerouac's typewriter delivered a new literary style. It fit with the seismic shift of American consciousness as post-war became the cold war era.

I read that Kerouac is the one who said his generation was beat. The Beat Generation name took hold for this group of poets, darers, dreamers, defiant roaring types who lyricized, lived largely and loosely and were part of the watershed for change.

If these Ragged Point monarch butterflies were beat I shall choose to believe it was the coastal winds and not social angst wearing them out that day.

Delving into my files the material on butterfly gardening was never located. It doesn't matter. Everything is online these days.

We have enough information for a butterfly garden start. Butterflies need flowers that produce nectar. Basic stuff but hey! now we know.

Flowers that require sunlight attract more butterflies. (I take note of this tip.) Butterflies are attracted to flowers by their color. Plant swaths of flowers of similar hues and you make it more inviting for them.

Provide milkweed plants (necessary for the larvae). Introduce Joe Pye weed which butterflies plain like.

Salvia works, so does bee balm. Asters and zinnias in the late summer and fall. English lavender draws butterflies. Lantana does too.

Monarchs are liquid feeders. Besides nectaring on flowers they appreciate a water source in the vicinity.

Certain shrubs and fruit bearing trees have a place in butterfly gardens. They're food, shade and protection from rain and wind all in one.

We have a garden spot picked out. It's where we took the big cottonwood tree down. For our shady yard it's the sunniest area we have to go with.

The overgrown daylily bed may have to go. This in itself is a good thing. It has run rampant over the other plantings.

In its place the cosmos and purple coneflowers will grow. And monarch butterflies, adrift on gentle air currents, will pause to refresh at the colorful buffet.

Ro Giencke - April 17, 2012

1 comment:

  1. Milkweed is good for many things, including treating warts