Monarchs of the Garden

I recently learned about “Gardening for Attracting and Caring for Butterflies,” courtesy of Duke Gardens and taught by a volunteer butterfly expert.

Gardening, butterflies, and insects go together.

With this axiom in mind, the time was spent developing a deeper appreciation for the relationship between butterfly and host plant, a keener awareness of seasonal cycles, and the value of protecting or bolstering butterfly populations. Practical tips for establishing a butterfly garden were discussed as well.

There are two types of plants that attract butterflies: nectar plants, which are perennials and annuals that provide nutrients for the adult butterfly; and host plants, such as milkweed, dill and parsley, on which the butterfly lays her eggs.  When setting up a butterfly garden, it’s helpful to not only understand these two distinctions, but to also determine the desired amount of personal involvement. Generally speaking, there are three levels of commitment: none/minimal, moderate, and maximum.

The minimal gardener might be one who enjoys attracting butterflies for their beauty. In this case, nectar plants would serve them well. For the moderate gardener who wishes to aid in the production of butterflies from egg to caterpillar (protecting them from predators or adverse weather), involvement would include growing host plants and covering the plants once the eggs are laid. The hardcore butterfly gardener is that able soul willing to invest an hour a day during the life cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Such involvement sometimes entails raising the developing butterfly indoors or in a protected place outdoors depending on the type of butterfly and the season.

Our speaker, who came laden with fully-stocked caterpillar and butterfly cages, could be classified as a hardcore butterfly gardener and caretaker. Primarily raising monarchs and black swallowtails, her learning curve has been steep—she began three years ago. Now, over 40 species of butterflies visit her garden. As “citizen scientists,” she and her husband assist in replenishing the declining monarch population and participate in state and local butterfly counting days (one of which occurs at Duke Gardens). Such opportunities are available to anyone who is interested.

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Caterpillars, (swallowtails are pictured here), go through five growth intervals, called instars, shedding their skeleton after each interval before entering the chrysalis (hard skin) stage of development.

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A caterpillar eats constantly in preparation for the chrysalis (pupa) stage. The larval (caterpillar) stage in monarchs, pictured here, typically lasts 9-14 days.

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On the right, two chrysalides hang as the miraculous development of the butterfly continues to take place inside. The bright colors of the butterfly’s wings will begin to show through the chrysalis as nutrients stored up from the caterpillar’s earlier eating extravaganza fuel metamorphosis. On the left, three empty chrysalides and a recently “born” butterfly. When a butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, the spectacular moment is referred to as eclosing.

The talk ended with a butterfly release! Nearly a dozen monarchs were set free in the Page-Rollins White Garden.

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One of the monarchs was removed from the mesh butterfly carrier and placed on my fingers, where it rested for a few moments before taking flight.

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Each monarch released that day had a “Monarch Watch” tag affixed to one of its wings. Monarch Watch is a non-profit organization that enlists the help of citizen scientists to gather data on the migration of monarchs. — Duke Gardens; Durham, NC

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A monarch “rests” on a mum in the Page-Rollins White Garden before beginning its fall migration, which could take it as far as Mexico. — Durham, NC

Nature is amazing! As much as I marvel at creation, I praise the Creator (God) all the more. He is alive and active, declaring His wisdom and power is nature. “In His hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” [2]


[2] Job 12:10
For more information on the butterfly’s transformation, consider reading Metamorphosis—A Symphony of Miracles.

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