I cannot remember the first time I saw a monarch butterfly, nor can I recollect exactly when my mom planted milkweed in our backyard. But there are photos of me holding recently hatched monarchs dangling on my hair.
As a kid, I probably misread their docility and fatigue from metamorphosing for affection, adoring the opportunity to be so close to something I would otherwise never be able to grasp. My mom’s decision to lure and then raise monarchs stemmed from her own love of nature and wanting to share it with both of her kids, alongside her 5th grade students. She planted milkweed at home and at the urban schools where she taught, leaving a trail for the monarchs to find. We had numerous seasons of caterpillars eating, pupating, hatching, and flying away. The experience instilled in me a sense of wonder and scientific curiosity.
I recall seeing monarchs regularly enough to assume their permanence in the world. However, the last 20 years has seen an 80% decline in their populations, and their annual migration is now threatened. This decline is due to several causes, but mostly related to habitat loss. Native milkweed once filled the spaces along roadsides and in corn fields across North America, but these nodes of habitat have disappeared with the rise of agricultural herbicides like glyphosate (found in Roundup). Also, those attempting to aid monarch butterflies by planting non-native milkweed in their yards have only exacerbated the problem. The widely available milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, or Tropical Milkweed, found at big box stores or garden centers around the country hosts a parasite that transfers to the caterpillar as it eats the plant, infecting the monarch into adulthood. I grew up with Tropical Milkweed too, before becoming aware of the importance of regional species to their lifecycle.
Monarch migration is one of the wonders of our world. The butterflies, usually 3-4 generations removed from those who migrated north, innately know to fly across North America to a specific location in southern Mexico to mate. The typical lifespan of a butterfly is only 4-6 weeks, but those that overwinter in Mexico live 6-7 months. The females fly north again to lay their eggs, while the males die happily after completing their duty, littering the forest floor orange. The succeeding generations of monarchs make their way as far north as Canada before repeating the cycle.
Last fall, my garden was host to a handful of monarch caterpillars. I spotted the first tiny pearlescent egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf. Once hatched, I watched as the hatchlings fattened themselves over the course of a couple weeks. Overnight they disappeared, and I began hunting around the yard for their green, bejeweled chrysalises. One hung gracefully from the arm of an Aloe marlothii, and another nestled into the concave leaf of an Aloe vera right next to my front door. A few attached themselves to small buckwheat branches. I brought one of these in a jar to work, where my coworkers and I excitedly waited for the chrysalis to turn dark, and then clear when it would reveal its black and orange wings folded inside.
Concerned the butterfly might emerge over the weekend, I decided to take it home. During the Metro ride back home I held the jar gingerly, trying to soften the bumps of the train. A wide cross-section of passengers ended up asking what I was cradling – from teenagers to Spanish-speaking older men – each wanting to connect with the tiny bit of nature within my jar. Once they knew it was a monarch butterfly, their faces registered I was transporting something special. Thus, a subway ride became an opportunity for conversations about bugs, ecology, and the environment.
Monarch butterflies’ orange and black wings are immediately recognizable, traditionally associated with spring, rebirth, resurrection, and more recently, as symbols of strength and resilience. They are also a sentinel species, warning us about health threats within a particular ecosystem or habitat. If we don’t address overuse of herbicides, pesticides, and abuse of our lands, we will lose the monarch and harm ourselves. The monarch butterfly is more than just a visual icon; these charismatic creatures can also prompt larger conversations about ecosystems, food sources, and the economy. One small critter can lead to educating the public on a variety of world issues.
The Asclepias fasciculatum (narrow-leaf milkweed) in my garden is just beginning to rebound after some winter dormancy. I am hoping my patch of California native milkweed will lure more monarchs this year, permitting me the opportunity to share the wondrous experience again with as many people as I can, just as my mom once did for me.
As designers with our hands in the landscape, it is our responsibility to support populations like the monarchs, and build habitat into the urban context. These nodes, however small, support a much larger system, providing important moments of connection with the bigger picture, even if just for a moment on a subway ride.