Butterflies Bear Bucolic Benefits

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Milkweed was first mentioned in these pages  so long ago I had forgotten their importance to Monarch butterflies, a seemingly perennial topic for our contributors. So thanks to Margaret Renkl for keeping that tradition going in her Monday op-ed, and reminding us in the process that while it is not all good news out there, it is also not all bad news:

Monarchs in My Garden, at Last

NASHVILLE — I was pretty proud of myself the spring I planted my first organic garden. It was the mid-1980s, and I was a first-year graduate student in creative writing, a program entirely unrelated to horticultural mastery. But I had taken a college course in environmental biology, and I knew the basics: The more chemicals you use in a garden, the more chemicals you’ll need in the garden. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, more reliable than the seasons.

At my house, companion planting — marigolds in between the broccoli, tomato vines encircling the spinach — would repel bugs the natural way. Any lingering pests would be dispatched by beneficial insects like ladybugs and praying mantises. One evening I watched happily as cabbage white butterflies flitted over silvery broccoli leaves. Those little white butterflies pausing in the gloaming on the water-beaded broccoli made for a tableau of bucolic harmony.

It didn’t dawn on me that a) the cabbage white butterflies were carrying out the usual biological imperative of springtime, b) broccoli belongs to the cabbage family, and c) the butterfly’s name references not only its color but also its host plant. Instead of broccoli, it turns out, I was raising cabbage white butterflies.

In time, I gave up trying to sort the damaging insects from the beneficial ones and started planting enough vegetables for both of us. Nearly three decades later, I gave up raising vegetables altogether. I was always rooting for the butterflies anyway, even before I read about the plight of the pollinators.

Four years ago, I pulled out the vestiges of my vegetable plants and put a pollinator garden in their place. It’s still an organic garden, even though my family isn’t eating what it produces, because chemicals are deadly to pollinators. Now my raised beds are full of native perennials that provide nectar for bees, wasps, skippers and butterflies, or serve as their nurseries: yarrow for painted lady butterflies, dill and parsley for black swallowtails, false indigo for southern dogface butterflies, loads and loads of white clover for the honeybees. The wasps and native bumblebees are gloriously busy in all of them.

Most of all, I planted as many varieties of native milkweed as my garden could hold — common milkweed and butterfly weed and swamp milkweed and purple milkweed — because milkweed is the host plant of the monarch butterfly, and in this age of Roundup-ready crops, the monarch butterfly is in danger of extinction. In a contest for garden space, the head of broccoli I can buy at the grocery store for $1.99 a pound carries no weight against the mass extinction of an irreplaceable butterfly that can fly for thousands of miles and was once so numerous it filled the skies with gold. This year the monarch’s numbers are 30 percent lower than last year’s, and last year’s numbers were disastrous.

But no matter how many milkweed seedlings I set out from one year to the next, no gravid monarch female ever arrived to lay eggs on them. Last year I tried to jump-start the whole process with mail-order caterpillars, but I had no better luck with them than with the mail-order ladybugs and praying mantises of decades ago, though for different reasons. The praying mantises thrived even if they didn’t save my broccoli plants, and all my mail-order caterpillars died before they became butterflies. Maybe I hadn’t planted nearly enough milkweed to make a wild monarch take note of my little way station?

“How would you feel about cutting down that sugar maple tree in the side yard?” I said to my husband. “I might need to plant a whole field of milkweed.”…

Read the whole op-ed here.

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