“The more asphalt we lay, the fewer butterflies we will see. The more wildflowers we replace with hybrids and ornamentals, the fewer caterpillars we will find. The more insecticides we spray, the fewer the wings that will fill the sky. Nine out of ten butterflies never reach adulthood. If the eggs aren’t crushed or the caterpillars eaten, the adults will probably die of thirst or drown in pesticide somewhere along the way.” — Rick Mikula “The Family Butterfly Book”
Asheville, NC — Allie Brosh’s brilliant book “Hyperbole and a Half” made me laugh out loud so many times. I will use one panel in particular to illustrate my motivation as an amateur naturalist. “Subject went outside today. Saw object in her peripheral vision that was roughly the same shape as an animal. Object turned out to be dirt pile. Subject disappointed. Wanted it to be animal.”
I see provocative things all the time when I’m walking or hiking that turn out to be nothing much, producing the feeling of an irrational irritation. (“What tha’?! Is the shadow on that fence post a woodpecker? … ah, no, it’s just some red paint. Well, crud muffin.”) But I do so enjoy it when object turns out to be something really, really cool.
On September 11, 2015, about three years after planting Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), SUBJECT SPOTTED EXACTLY WHAT SHE WANTED TO SPOT; a monarch caterpillar feasting on a leaf of milkweed in her yard! I could hardly believe my eyes.
This is me gawking at my first baby. Oh, gosh, am I getting a bald spot? Well, never mind that. Let me get to the heart of what I want you to know:
Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants and MILKWEED IS THE ONLY PLANT THAT THEIR BABIES EAT.
no milkweed. No monarchs.
Monarch populations have plummeted 90%
over the past two decades.
That figure shook me up when I first saw it and not just because I love monarch butterflies. In college biology classes and in working at a native plant gardens, I’ve learned that the disappearance of one species can ripple through the entire food chain. When we lose one species, we just don’t know how that will impact others. Plants, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, etc., … we’re all in this together. We have all co-evolved and depend upon each other in both simple and complex ways. For instance, a particular plant may depend upon a certain insect or bird for pollination in order to reproduce. [Interesting side note: Some plants even depend on a certain soil fungus in order to germinate. Soil chemistry can spell doom for one plant and party time for another. That’s why the experts encourage gardeners to test their soil before planting because plants need specific chemicals to thrive. A plant that lives on top of Mt. Mitchell needs completely different soil aeration, pH, salinity, temperature, and nutrients than a plant that thrives on the coast.]
Mammals are generalists — we can eat all kinds of things — but “specialists,” like monarchs, have it really tough. Sure, they can feed off many nectar plants as adults, but their babies can only feed on one type of plant: milkweed. Before I knew this, I did what a lot of people do — I bought a buddleia (butterfly bush) thinking I was doing the monarch and other butterflies a favor. Later I found out that not only is the butterfly bush a native of Asia, but it’s also on the invasive species watch list! As scientist Doug Tallamy points out in his fantastic book “Bringing Nature Home“:
“The alien buddleias are much touted as excellent nectar plants for butterfly gardens. Unfortunately, not a single species of butterfly in North America can reproduce on butterfly bush.”
I’ve removed this plant from my yard. (And that’s not the only waste of money I’ve made in my yard. I’ve also made plenty of mistakes planting other non-natives or planting native plants in the wrong place … we’ll get to that in a later post. For now, just know to do a little research before you plant.)
At this point I should mention something that I’ll also delve into in another post: not all non-native plants are invasive and not all native plants are non-aggressive. I do have non-native dahlias in my yard, but the only reason they get to stay is because they’re not making babies or interfering with my native plants. However, the best rule of thumb is to plant with plants native to your local area because the insects, birds and other native wildlife have evolved to depend on those plants and many of those critters are specialists like the monarch. Unfortunately, you can’t count on mainstream nurseries — or especially big box stores — to be ethical and not sell you an aggressive, non-native plants. For instance, it should be illegal to sell oriental bittersweet and English ivy, but it’s not, and places still do it out of greed and stupidity.
Anyway, here’s the most important thing to know: each and every one of us can make a difference for wildlife in our yard and on our patios. I live in a very urban environment — lots of pavement and loads of non-native invasive plants encroaching all around — but in my yard, I’m doing things differently, and it’s paying off. I’ve removed pavement and replaced lawn with a large variety of native plants. I’ve also taken other landscaping measures to help wildlife (more on that later), and I’m attracting a greater variety of insects and birds. With so many daunting environmental issues, it gives me deep satisfaction to know that I can do something proactive and important in my own yard. Oh course, it’s like using a bandaid to close off an amputated leg, but if enough of us do it, it will really add up to something.
When Dr. Tallamy came to Asheville to help us celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, I had him sign my copy of his book. He wrote, “Garden as if life depends on it!” Because it does.
Until next week, enjoy these pictures from that wonderful day this fall when I found my first caterpillar. Cheers, Heather
Above and below: Ben’s first look at the caterpillar.
This site is sponsored by:
Thank you Ben Gillum, of Keller-Williams Realty in Asheville, N.C.