DescriptionMy sister and I planted milkweed in our gardens for several years before we actually found monarch caterpillars. Each year we would discuss our milkweed and wonder where the caterpillars could be. Then, one summer evening, she invited me to dinner. As I was standing in her kitchen, unaware, she suddenly asked me to go outside. She led me to a swamp milkweed plant (Asclepias incarnata) and pulled back a leaf to reveal a beautiful caterpillar, busily eating and oblivious to our presence. My heart soared. I grabbed my phone and started taking photos. We had both previously raised swallowtail caterpillars in cages to protect them from predators, so we moved the monarch caterpillar to a butterfly cage. My sister provided fresh milkweed clippings for it and kept me posted on its progress. And then one day, she called me with another dinner invitation. I will never forget seeing that first chrysalis, the wonder of that incredible transformation. It felt like magic.
When the City of St. Louis Mayor's office started the Milkweeds for Monarchs program, I was so excited. I checked the City Hall demonstration garden routinely. When I finally found caterpillars, of course I pulled out my trusty phone to document the triumph. I couldn't wait to tell them that their little garden had done its job! I emailed the news to Catherine Werner in the Office of Sustainability and sent a photo to her. She was kind enough to share it and eventually my photo graced the cover of a publication by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). This was an honor that I never could have imagined. I had been an admirer of NWF for as long as I could remember, dating back to my childhood when I received their Ranger Rick magazine. And now, in some small way, I was a part of their effort to spread the word to people everywhere that any garden, no matter how small, can help Monarch butterflies.
For years, I have always been thrilled by the different markers of turning seasons in my little city yard. When I hear the first white-throated sparrow singing as it returns from the north in fall, or the first chimney swifts chattering overhead when they arrive in spring, it's like seeing an old friend who's been away. Planting milkweed has provided another seasonal marker as I search the leaves with all the excitement of a child looking for eggs on Easter morning. There is no such thing as a bad day when I go outside and find monarch caterpillars in my own back yard. They go about their lives without regard to me, but it feels like a personal reward when I see them in my garden, doing what they do, because of something that I planted. It fills me with a sense of awe and inspiration that there is something else out there, something truly grand. It makes me feel small.
In St. Louis we often get through the month of October before the first hard freeze and monarchs can be seen on warm days, making their way to Mexico. When that first frosty morning comes, I feel a tinge of sadness because I know they won't be out there when I look. But my thoughts soon turn to next year's garden. What new nectar plants will I try to grow? Where else can I tuck a milkweed plant? Will I find eggs during their journey north next spring, or will I have to wait until late summer, when they've begun their trek southward? Who else can I convince to plant milkweed?
There is magic all around us. Nature offers a bounty of gifts, every day, to anyone who is willing to look for them. They aren't difficult to find- sometimes it's as simple as turning over a new leaf.
-Story contributed by Kathy T. through Milkweeds for Monarchs: The St. Louis Butterfly Project, a program of the City of St. Louis Mayor's Office.