Because the monarch butterfly populations have steadily decreased across the country over the last few years, some people are planting garden habitats — including in Lexington — to ensure the winged travelers have a better chance of surviving their long, international voyage.
The annual migration of the orange-and-black butterflies begins in lower Canada. It proceeds across the Midwest and ends, following a journey of up to 2,500 miles, at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the steep mountain terrain near Morelia, Mexico. In spring, monarchs make a return flight north.
How these amazing insects navigate to trace the routes previous generations chose is still being studied.
But one thing that is clear is that the growing concern about declines in monarch populations has inspired some advocacy groups to create conservation programs to counteract habitat loss.
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Part of the cause for the population decline is that construction development and increased land use for crop cultivation, along with newly developed types of extremely effective herbicides, have displaced millions of acres in which milkweed, the main food source of monarch caterpillars, once grew.
Joanna Kirby, president of The Garden Club of Kentucky, and member Linda Porter — who has earned the title The Butterfly Lady because of the many programs she has presented — have made establishing monarch waystations a priority in the last couple years.
One result of their efforts is that more than 100 of Kentucky's monarch waystations are certified by Monarchwatch.org., an advocacy group working to help encourage waystations.
The Kentucky registry includes parks, libraries and schools, as well as private Kentucky gardens. You can search the online list at Monarchwatch.org to find details about waystations throughout any state, as well as forms to download for establishing your own.
These gardens not only benefit monarchs and the environment, but also enrich lives of the people who visit them.
At Morning Pointe at Lexington East, a senior living community at 150 Shoreside Drive, the local Soil Mates Garden Club volunteered time and expertise to plant and certify a monarch waystation in an interior courtyard.
Nan Starkweather, an active master gardener who spearheaded the project, says that with about 10 members at work, planting was easily done in about 20 minutes. The plants used were provided by Al's Landscaping, which takes care of Morning Pointe's general landscaping needs. "There are many types of plants that attract the butterflies," said the community's life enrichment director Sarah Rowe. "Some of the flowers and plants in our butterfly garden include black-eyed Susan, milkweed and purple coneflower.
"We are so glad to be a part of a conservation effort to preserve and save the monarchs. The residents will be tracking the courtyard to see the monarchs come and go."
The butterfly section of the Kentucky Children's Garden at The Arboretum on Alumni Drive is also a certified monarch waystation.
In addition to a bright collection of nectar plants, three kinds of milkweed, are planted. This year, a new and unusual tropical milkweed with seed pods that look like translucent hairy tennis balls, grows about four feet tall and adds a whimsical touch to the garden. Many moths and butterflies, as well as other pollinators, find them irresistible.
Emma Trester-Wilson, education coordinator at the Children's Garden, shares with young visitors a collection of monarch caterpillars found there, as well as some chrysalises and cocoons of other butterflies and cecropia moths.
The Episcopal Church of St. Michael the Archangel on Bellefonte Drive has another style of waystation where a drainage detention basin forms a steep little dell in the hillside behind the church. Planted with native species, it is a wild jumble of blooming aster, black-eyed Susan, goldenrod and various grasses this time of year. Stone benches along the rim provide a quiet spot for meditation.
The creation of Beate Popkin, president of the Lexington Chapter of Wild Ones (Lexington.wildones.org), the scene reflects that club's mission of landscaping with native plants.