Barbara is new to Greenwise and I met her at the Parsons’ Community Garden Walk this past August. As soon as Barbara said she raised Monarchs in her dining room, I knew I had to know more.
Barbara’s husband was a landscaper’s son, so he certainly knew his way around a yard, but he wasn’t raised with an organic practice. He was a first generation American from the Netherlands and over the years, Barbara weaned him off using chemicals on their lawn. Barbara’s expansive yard is filled with native flowers, including Milkweed for her Monarchs.
“Initially, I told him no chemicals after May 1. As we got older, he was more inclined toward organics and started using corn gluten instead of chemicals.”
Gardening by the Seat of Her Pants
Now, the only toxic component of their property is the Milkweed. Pssst, it’s only toxic for birds. That’s why Milkweed is such a safe place for caterpillars and butterflies, and did you know it’s the only plant that Monarchs use to lay their eggs?
Mother Nature is certainly amazing. And she gets a big boost by Barbara, even though she says, “I’m a seat of the pants gardener. Things grow in spite of me.” She also claims she’s not a scientist, but when you walk around her property with her, learning about how she raises Monarchs, you will heartily disagree.
Barbara and her husband were the type of nature lovers who would sit in the evenings with their glass of wine and watch their unusual evening Primroses bloom in slow motion. She truly appreciates all that nature gives her from the water in her rain barrels to the unusual plants on her porch, such as the Lemon Cucumber she got from an organic gardener at the farmer’s market, to growing flowers in her porch planters for the Hummingbirds. She even uses her caterpillar poop (goes by the official name of Frass in case you were wondering or wanted to use it in your next game of Words with Friends) in her compost pile. “It’s powerful stuff. Little, but powerful,” exclaims Barbara.
“Hummingbirds are like fairies, really the closest thing we have to fairies. Sometimes when I’m sitting on my porch working on my crossword puzzle, I’ll look up and there’s a hummingbird close to me just watching me. Hummingbirds love black and blue salvia, and red salvia of course, and I’ve discovered they love Thunbergia, a black-eyed susan vine,” says Barbara.
Greenwise is now a weekly presence in Barbara’s life. The crew’s foreman, Ignacio, rings the bell each week and asks if there is anything special she needs done in her yard that day.
“He pays close attention to my compost pile and turns it every week for me. During the summer, his crew carefully mows around the 5 or 6 Milkweed stems that have sprouted in the grass, so that the Monarchs don’t lose their landing pad. They are good guys. Plus, my lawn had been invaded by creeping Charlie, which has now disappeared with Greenwise’s weed management program,” Barbara says.
Raising Monarchs in a Dining Room
Barbara has been raising Monarchs since the 1980s. She worked in the public library’s art department in Park Ridge and one day a library patron from the local garden club introduced her to raising butterflies.
“I quickly had 12 dozen caterpillars. It took all evening for me to feed them. I had stacks and stacks of jars for the caterpillars. One night I found 100 eggs, so in a month I had 80 butterflies I was able to release in one day. Now, I have about 30,” Barbara says.
Barbara’s “domestic beautification expert” was at the house when we visited. According to Linda, “Barbara is the professor of butterflies and knows any kind of bird, goes bird watching and she frequently makes homemade bread—she’s a force of nature.”
If I haven’t painted a clear picture of Barbara’s special passion for nature, it should come into focus when you step into her dining room.
At first glance, her dining room may seem traditional, but truly it’s more like an elegant science lab. On an end table you‘ll find rows of jars with caterpillars at various stages of growth. Each jar contains some leaves, a stick laying across the lid and netting to keep the caterpillar from escaping. Did you know caterpillars will eat up to one leaf a day?
The stick serves an important function. Once the caterpillar stops eating, it hangs upside down from a twig or leaf and spins itself a silky, shiny chrysalis. Touching the chrysalis feels like a vitamin E capsule—kind of soft and squishy.
After the caterpillar forms its chrysalis, Barbara has a special place made just for the occasion. Look closely above the dining room’s floral wallpaper and you’ll see what looks like a white clapboard with a series of small holes. Each hole holds a stick that a chrysalis hangs on.
The Magic of Metamorphosis
It takes about two weeks for a caterpillar to metamorphosize into a butterfly. Once the chrysalis changes color from green to translucent, Barbara knows it’s getting ready to emerge. When it reaches the translucent stage, you can actually see the Monarch inside. Pretty amazing.
When the butterfly is done with the chrysalis, what remains is a paper-thin shell, but surprisingly strong. If you try to pull the discarded chrysalis off the stick, you really need to put some oomph into it. That’s because the caterpillar makes its chrysalis by creating a silken knob for its tail to attach as a way to hang on.
Once the Monarch pops out of the chrysalis, it unfurls its wings and is all wrinkly. A good four hours will go by before it’s ready to fly. The top of a chrysalis has horizontal ridges, like a stack of stairs, that the butterfly holds on to with its feet until its ready to let go.
The Art of Letting Go
Another little tidbit that I learned from Barbara is that Monarchs won’t fly in the dark or if it’s too cool. The temperature needs to be just right. The day I caught up with her was a gorgeous, sunny early fall day. Not too hot, not too cool.
When the Monarch unfurls itself from the chrysalis, Barbara moves it to a special netted container. She sometimes conducts special releases for friends.
“Once or twice a season I show off and release the Monarchs. One year I released them for my former Sunday school teacher’s 100th birthday! I had taught her how to raise Monarchs when she was 90. Every time I do a special release, I hope I’ll get another Monarch convert or future entomologist,” says Barbara.
This generation’s migrating Monarchs get a special farewell before they fly off. Barbara carefully removes each one from the netted container, holds its wings gently, and delicately places a tagging sticker on the hind wing.
She has a pamphlet from Monarch Watch that shows her exactly how to do it.
“I was always afraid to tag them, thinking that I would hurt them. But I heard years and years and years ago that Martha Stewart did it with kids alongside Dr. Chip Taylor, and the kids foof (she gestures to show how rough they were), and I thought OK they are fine, I can do this,” Barbara says.
After tagging the wing, we hold the Monarch in our open palm and wait for it to fly off. Sometimes, it takes off immediately and sometimes it just wants to hang out a bit before it’s ready (sort-of like our kids leaving home, right?). They always fly to the nearby Bald Cypress or Oak tree to hide and rest for a while before beginning their awesome migratory adventure.
Monarchs have a migration pattern that’s more akin to whales and birds in terms of how far they travel. Barbara’s Monarchs (and any in our area) travel about 3,000 miles to a roosting spot in Mexico. North American Monarchs are the only ones making such an impressive trek.
Amazingly, they often roost in the very same trees as the generation before them did the previous winter. Next spring, the grandchildren will come back to Barbara’s yard and start laying eggs, and the whole beautiful cycle of life begins again.
Monarch Watch and Becoming a Citizen Scientist
Barbara works with Monarch Watch to tag the butterflies. According to its website, “The Monarch Watch Tagging Program is a large-scale citizen science project that was initiated in 1992 to help understand the dynamics of the monarch’s spectacular fall migration through mark and recapture…. Tagging helps answer questions about the origins of monarchs that reach Mexico, the timing and pace of the migration, mortality during the migration, and changes in geographic distribution….
“Each fall we distribute more than a quarter of a million tags to thousands of volunteers across North America who tag monarchs as they migrate through their area. These ‘citizen scientists’ capture monarchs throughout the migration season, record the tag code, tag date, gender of the butterfly, and geographic location then tag and release them. At the end of the tagging season, these data are submitted to Monarch Watch and added to our database to be used in research.”
Are you interested in becoming a citizen scientist to learn how to tag Monarchs? It’s all on their website—you can learn about tagging and get your own starter kit. I’m sure Barbara will say if she can do it, you can do it. And, I’m pretty certain she would be happy to help you, if you asked.
As you might know, our Monarch population is at risk and in threat of extinction, so just planting a few native flowers, including Milkweed, will go a long way to create natural habitats for our Monarchs and other pollinators to keep the life cycle going strong.
Garden organically to minimize your impact on monarchs, their food plants and other pollinators, and become a citizen scientist and monitor monarchs in your area. Keep talking about it and help educate others about pollinators! Together, person by person and garden by garden, we can help bring Monarchs and other pollinators back.