I was startled and dismayed upon reading San Francisco Chronicle’s Friday’s front page headline: “Distinctive butterflies could go extinct soon, study shows”. The article’s author, Peter Fimrite, then goes on to quote Cheryl Schultz, an associate professor of biological sciences at Washington State University and lead author of a study of wintering monarch butterflies from Marin County to the Baja California peninsula as saying, “We believe there were at least 10 million butterflies in many of the years during the 1980’s. It’s gone down from 10 million to 300,000.” Peter goes on to say that there is a similar decline with the eastern monarchs which overwinter in Mexico and then migrate back to the United States and and as far north as Canada.
What can we do, as gardeners, to respond to this crisis of near extinction of our beloved monarch butterfly? Peter observes that the monarch is “extremely sensitive to changes in habitat and weather and to toxins in the environment”. So a couple of things we can do are to eliminate the pesticides and herbicides we now use in the garden (that would be beneficial to more than just the monarchs!) and to plant milkweed. Why milkweed? Monarchs’ migration patterns are interesting and complex, and their migration involves several generations the females laying their eggs at the same time they are feeding on the nectar of flowers to sustain their flights. The butterfly weed, or milkweed is an especially attractive source of to the monarchs and thus their eggs are most times deposited on those plants. When the eggs hatch, the very hungry caterpillars feed on the leaves of the favored plants.
When I visited a local nursery, checking out the milkweed plants, on that Friday afternoon, there was already a monarch caterpillar on one of the milkweed plants. I left that one to be nurtured and guarded by the nursery personnel and promptly bought four other milkweeds, all to be part of a drawing at our next Berkeley Garden Club meeting, on Sept. 19.