Find out how your family can do its part to help save and care for the lovely monarch butterfly.
Saving a species was never so much fun or so beautiful—or, in the case of the monarch butterfly—so needed. The North American population of the eye-catching orange-and-black butterflies have been declining for years, and this winter, the numbers in California have plummeted.
The monarchs are famous for their astonishing migration. The population east of the Rockies travels up to 2,500 miles, from areas close to Canada to its overwintering site in Mexico. West of the Rockies, they come here, to Southern and Central California, while others live in the area year-round.
That makes Orange County the perfect place to provide some habitat, food and protection for them, to help increase their numbers. And while families are doing that good deed, they receive all sorts of rewards: The sight of the strikingly black-white-and-yellow-striped caterpillars munching away on their one favorite plant. The process as they enclose themselves in a hanging chrysalis that’s jade green with a row of dots that you could swear were real gold. And finally, the adults flittering in their yards.
Making your home monarch-friendly is also a great science project to do with children and a terrific environmental scouting project for an entire troop. It’s not difficult or expensive to have this experience, and there are all kinds of help out there, including your local nursery. All it takes are some plants.
The best way to get started—or to just learn about the creatures at a free and fun family event—is coming up in early February as Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley holds its 10th annual Monarch Butterfly Day.
Usually it costs money to park but if you tell the attendant that you’re headed to the monarch event, parking is free at parking lot C. The activities are at the nearby Forest Shelter.
One of the fascinating things about the monarch butterfly is that it will lay its eggs only on one particular kind of plant called milkweed. In fact, one of the reasons its numbers have declined is that this wild plant also is less common because so much natural open space has been replaced by construction, agriculture or other uses. But milkweed is easy to grow in gardens and pots, and these days can be found in many nurseries. The caterpillars will eat only the leaves of this plant when they hatch, growing practically by the hour. Later, after they emerge from chrysalis stage, they need the food of some nectar-providing flowers.
At the Mile Square event, children can learn how to plant a butterfly garden of their own, and can go inside a netted butterfly enclosure. There will be experts on hand to provide information and answer questions. And even if butterflies don’t particularly catch your child’s interest, there will be crafts, face painting and a balloon artist. Food will be available for purchase, or bring a picnic.
If you can’t make it to the event, or crave more monarch madness, Norma B. Gibbs Butterfly Park provides a self-guided monarch experience at all times. The Huntington Beach park has been designed around creating a monarch habitat, with milkweed and many flowering plants to provide the butterflies with nectar. The eucalyptus trees are a favored spot for overwintering.
The park was turned into a butterfly oasis because of the efforts of nearby resident Leslie Gilson, who also was behind the creation of butterfly decorations and interpretive displays that explain the life cycle of the butterfly. Now many of the neighbors near the park have begun planting their own monarch butterfly gardens.
But you don’t need terrific expertise to put a few plants into soil. Milkweed is available in two main types: native plants, which naturally go dormant and then return, and tropical milkweed, which is leafier and more robust, and grows all year. The advantage of the native plants is that they fit better with the local environment and go dormant for part of each year, which is considered necessary to prevent certain parasites from taking hold and weakening the butterflies, which then can infect larger populations. Native plants are available at such nurseries as Tree of Life Nursery on Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano.
Tropical milkweed is easier to grow and especially likes pots. It’s also found at most standard nurseries. It provides more food for the caterpillars, but is green year-round and should be trimmed down in late fall to keep parasites from taking hold, unless you are willing to go the extra mile to learn how to bleach the plants. Blue Hills Nursery in Whittier is another good place to find monarch-friendly plants.
Want more guidance? Follow Orange County resident Monika Moore, who releases more than a thousand butterflies a year, on her Facebook page, California Butterfly Lady. She also gives occasional lessons at Blue Hills Nursery.
Growing numbers of Orange County residents are getting pumped about rescuing this extraordinarily beautiful insect. You can even get your yard designated as a monarch waystation, joining the fun with other citizen-scientists in Southern California.
Monarch Butterfly Day, originally scheduled for Feb. 2, was postponed because of weather. Mile Square Regional Park is located at 16801 Euclid St. in Fountain Valley. For updates, check: www.ocparks.com/parks/mile or for more information, call 714-973-6600 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Norma B. Gibbs Butterfly Park is located at 16641 Graham St. in Huntington Beach and is open during daylight hours. Free parking is available on the street. hbtrees.org
By Karin Klein