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.

JC Raulston Arboretum: A Living Laboratory & Outdoor Classroom

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A view from the top: looking down over the railing from the lovely rooftop garden. — Raleigh, NC

My mother has three daughters. (That’s a rather strange way of saying that I have two sisters.) My Mom would be the first to agree that each one of us is very different.

The Research Triangle region of North Carolina has three major public gardens: Duke Gardens (Duke University’s crown jewel), the North Carolina Botanical Garden (a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill treasure), and the JC Raulston Arboretum (NC State University’s gem). Two of these locales are listed among the 50 Most Amazing University Botanical Gardens and Arboretums in the U.S.[1]

I’ve visited and written about Duke Gardens many, many times, and I’ve shared photos of the NC Botanical Garden several times as well. Until recently, I had yet to visit the JC Raulston Arboretum.

The main goals of the 10-acre Arboretum are to provide a center for learning and a place to cultivate plants for southern landscapes. The grounds are divided into several themed gardens and borders. Memorial plaques and dedications can be found throughout. I particularly liked a memorial plaque I spotted by the Rose Garden:

“They loved the rose for its beauty and fragrance, a glimpse of God’s glory.”

Here’s a glimpse of the glory through the lens of my camera…and in the meandering order in which I encountered its beauty.

Scree/Xeric Garden
This area contains drought tolerant plants that are native to South Africa, Mexico, and the southern United States.

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Bees pollinate a cactus flower at the JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC).

Lath House
The architectural design of Lath House, comprised of iron supports, wooden beams overhead, tiled paths underfoot, and raised beds of plants, is award-winning.

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Lath House is home to over 700 plants that thrive in the shade. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

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The blooms on the Acanthus “Morning Candle” are burning out, but I thought the plant was pretty nonetheless. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

Plantsmen’s Woods
Trees from around the world can be found in Plantsmen’s Woods. An eastern redbud, with its golden-orange new growth, caught my eye.

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“The Rising Sun” gold-leaf eastern redbud. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

Color Trials
This colorful, full-sun space is an official All-America Selections testing site where new cultivars are evaluated for use in home gardens.

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“Supertunia Vista Silverberry” petunias grow profusely in the All-American Selections trial ground of the JC Raulston Arboretum. (North Carolina)

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A spotted skipper sits  atop “Meteor Shower” verbena in the Color Trials area of the Arboretum. (Raleigh NC)

Water Garden
This garden is part of a larger group of gardens called the Model Garden.

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I saw lots of Great Blue Skimmers around the lily pads in the Water Garden. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

A.E. Finley Rooftop Terrace
This garden is so unique (IMHO). Although the conditions of the rooftop garden are severe, plants that can tolerate heat, dryness and wind thrive in soil containing sand and slate.

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A.E. Finley Rooftop Terrace: The rocky mound straight ahead is a crevice garden. Looking over the railing is a view of a waterfall complete with aquatic plants, as well as the JC Raulston paver pictured at the top of this blog post. (Raleigh, NC)

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Winding brick walkways and this gigantic agave ovatifolia succulent are just two of the striking sights on the Rooftop at JC Raulston Arboretum. (Raleigh, NC)

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A Buckeye butterfly pollinates a Winkler’s gaillardia on the rooftop. …Keep doing what you’re doing, Buckeye! From my reading, this blanketflower is considered endangered by the United States Botanic Garden Conservatory. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

Centers of Learning
The Arboretum offers both an Education Center, where programs and private events are held, as well as a Visitor Center.

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The Bobby G. Wilder Visitor Center contains a reading/resource area for the inquisitive. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

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Behind the coneflowers and near the Visitors Center, this Japanese Crepe Myrtle, “Fantasy,”  stands as one of the oldest and largest crepe myrtles growing outside of Japan. It’s a variant resulting from seedlings collected in the 1950s on the island of Yakushima. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

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Here’s another look at “Fantasy.” Across from it (not pictured) is a slightly smaller crepe myrtle. …Pictures are worth a thousand words, but seeing this big guy “live” and in full panorama is worth a million. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

Another historic notable at JC Raulston Arboretum is the 50-foot tall Columnar English Oak, which was the first tree planted there.

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On my way back to the parking lot, I “spotted” this Leopard Lily (or Blackberry Lily). Proper name: Belamcanda chinensis.  Why is it also called a Blackberry Lily? Because their seed pods look like blackberries. (Beware, they are not edible!)  — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

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This was one of my favorite scenes, and one of the last ones I photographed: The “Cecil Houdyshel” Crinum Lily, named after its cultivator, is an old southern heirloom. — JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh, NC)

Following my afternoon at the JC Raulston Arboretum, I concluded that these three public spaces—beautiful though each one is—are very different from one another. Unlike my mother, who doesn’t have a favorite daughter, I do have a favorite public garden. Most likely, you can guess which one it is. But my personal preference aside, all three are lovely and I encourage you to visit one, or two, or all of them soon. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


Parking and admission to the JC Raulston Arboretum are free, but donations are accepted.
[1]  As awarded by Best Colleges Online.

Sandy Creek: A City of Durham Park

With a forecast of 97 degrees on tap, I did what any sensible person would do—I headed for the great outdoors.

The thermometer was already (or only) registering 82 when I turned off of Pickett Road and onto Sandy Creek Drive. My destination: an abandoned wastewater treatment plant. (Perfectly sensible, right?) Rewind—or fast forward, to be exact. My destination: Sandy Creek Park.

A sign warned that there was “No Outlet” and I followed the road to the end. I found myself in a parking area facing the open expanse of a largely wooded and wild 103-acre park. I immediately liked what I saw.

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Sandy Creek Park in Durham, NC (Saturday, 6/13/15)

Sandy Creek Park was once a wastewater treatment facility, built by Duke University in the early 1900s to serve West Campus and the Hospital. Around 1928, the facility was turned over to the City of Durham. The City operated the plant until its closure in the 1970s. In the 1990s, many of the buildings were razed and a park rose out of the rubble.

Since then, several organizations have partnered with Durham Parks & Recreation to make Sandy Creek Park what it is today. Organizations such as New Hope Creek Corridor Advisory Committee, Friends of Sandy Creek, Keep Durham Beautiful, and Alta Planning and Design of Durham. (Not to mention the park’s landscape designer, Kenneth Coulter.)

What is Sandy Creek Park like today? I’m glad you asked.

In a nutshell, Sandy Creek Park is a thriving wetlands and pine uplands habitat complete with a two-mile walking trail system, butterfly garden, picnic area, restrooms, a creek (for which the park is named), and two small lakes.

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The Sandy Creek Park trail system is a combination of natural and paved surfaces. Pictured here is a part of the Sandy Creek Greenway trail. –Durham, NC

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Here’s the start of the 0.4 mile unpaved nature trail around one of the wetland ponds. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

The park is recognized by the National Wildlife Federation as a certified wildlife habitat because it offers the four basics: food, water, cover, and places to raise young. It’s also a registered ebirding site, which means that one can report bird sitings or see the sitings of others at eBird.org.

I didn’t venture too far down the trails this first visit. Nevertheless, there were plenty of flowers and critters to capture by camera. Placards along the way apprise visitors of the various wildlife and plant life around them. I won’t duplicate those efforts here, but suffice it to say that the signs were informative and would add to the overall experience for those with heightened curiosities. Instead, I’ll highlight a few of my favorite things.

Friends of Sandy Creek Butterfly Garden
What a cute little garden this is—complete with all the right perennials to attract pollinators. I was partial to the coneflowers. (Translated: Be prepared to see a few coneflower pictures.)

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Coneflowers in the Butterfly Garden attract butterflies. (One fluttered away just as I snapped this picture.) A butterfly house adds both function and charm to the habitat. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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The Sandy Creek Butterfly Garden is a workplace for bees as well. –Durham, NC

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A butterfly (Duskywing?) on a coneflower in the Butterfly Garden at Sandy Creek Park. –Durham, NC

(Not-So) Out With the Old, In With the New
For some, it might seem kind of icky to tromp around a place where wastewater was processed. Personally, I found remnants of the treatment plant—two water tanks and a Pump House—important reminders of the past that added to the park’s charm.

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Vestiges of the bygone water treatment facility (“Vacuator” tank far left; Pump House on right) stand alongside new park features such as this inviting arbor swing. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

Native Flora
Throughout the park, native wildflowers spring up deliberately as well as naturally. With scenery along the trails dominated by green leaves and shrubs, it was a pleasant surprise to encounter reds and yellows popping up here and there.

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Bee Balm plants, attractors of butterflies and bees, grow tall in front of the old treatment plant’s “Digester.” (Bee Balm is also in the nearby Butterfly Garden.)  –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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Just past the creek, along the Sandy Creek Trail, I spotted these Black-Eyed Susans. Sure, Black-Eyed Susans are a commonplace wildflower, but did you know that there are several different varieties? For example, these Susans—with their big cylindrical eyes and dipping petals—are different than the ones in my own garden. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham NC

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Red Honeysuckle Alert! Nector-rich vines such as this one growing on the arbor swing beckon to the hummingbirds. Trumpet Creepers, which I also spotted along Sandy Creek, attract such local birds as the Ruby-throated hummingbird.  –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

Sandy Creek Wildlife
As I made my way toward the Sandy Creek Bridge, I came upon an older lady out for her morning walk.

“See that gray-looking tree over there?” She pointed beyond the wetlands toward the upland pines a good quarter of a mile away.

I nodded expectantly.

“It’s a big herons’ nest.” She stated this with the matter-of-fact confidence of a park veteran.

My untrained eyes saw nothing.

Having done her duty to nature and her fellow man, she left me to my neck craning. Fearing that I was missing out on something spectacular, I did the only thing I could think of: I zoomed in as far as my camera would go and snapped away. Once home, here’s what I saw:

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Great Blue Herons nesting in the pines at Sandy Creek Park. I count EIGHT! — Durham, NC

Next time, I’ll know where to look! …And you will too, should you visit the park. Also, it might be useful to carry along a pair of binoculars.

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A black Swallowtail in the brush by one of the lakes. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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At least three types of turtles make their homes on the waters of Sandy Creek Park. In one of the small lakes, I spotted four Yellow-bellied Sliders. (There were several other turtle logs, too!) — Durham, NC

Despite living in Durham for ten years, I didn’t know this park existed until recently when web searches for local birds repeatedly referred me to Sandy Creek. The number of birds sited at the park is astounding! And now that I’m out of my shell—play on previous picture intended—I hope to return and photograph some of them.


The City of Durham has more than 60 public parks. I’ve visited and written about three of them. The other two include Leigh Farm Park and Orchard Park.

You Can Learn A Lot Over Lunch

When I sat down on that stone bench under the shade tree earlier this week to eat my lunch, I knew nothing about “Moonshine” plants, Bottlebrush, or Hummingbird Moths. This is how I would have described my surroundings: “I’m sitting beside profusely blooming yellow plants and a green bush loaded with huge, fuzzy flowers, both of which are swarming with bees and butterflies.”

After a little bit of research, I now look back on that lunchtime scene with new, more informed eyes. In a departure from its textbook tendency to avoid yellow plants, a Silver-spotted Skipper repeatedly came to rest on an Achillea “Moonshine” Yarrow plant while a Hummingbird Moth and countless Eastern Carpenter Bees drank the nectar from a neighboring Bottlebrush Evergreen Shrub.

And, of course, I took pictures:

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A Silver-spotted Skipper at rest on a “Moonshine” Yarrow plant–a perennial that should bloom all summer.

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A Hummingbird Moth and an Eastern Carpenter Bee feed on the nectar of a Bottlebrush’s flowers. The Bottlebrush is an evergreen that is native to Australia.

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The wings of this Hummingbird Moth did not stop for a minute! The Bottlebrush flowers on which it is feeding reportedly attract (“real”) Hummingbirds, too. How exciting!

This lunchtime display of nature left me with the following question to digest: Is it better to be educated or to simply enjoy a moment in its blessed simplicity?  Perhaps the answer is a mixture of both.