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Natural Perspectives:

Monarch butterflies prove to be elusive

February 25, 2010|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray

The Friends of Shipley Nature Center hosted a Monarch butterfly festival Saturday. But they must have forgotten to invite the butterflies. Vic and I didn’t see a single one.

It was probably the cold, stormy weather of the previous few days that kept them away, but it didn’t deter the people. Vic and I expected the event to be well-attended, so we arrived at the parking lot five minutes after the nature center’s gates opened. But the lot was already full, and we had to park in the overflow parking at the library. Bad news for us, but great news for the festival organizers.

The festival celebrated the migratory lives of these black-and-orange wanderers with educational displays and activity stations for children. Students from the La Quinta High School Ecology Club staffed the craft and activity tables where younger children made butterflies from tissue paper and caterpillars from pipe cleaners.

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Sales at the native plant nursery were brisk. I bought a packet of seeds of a California native plant called narrow-leafed milkweed, which Monarchs love. The adults lay their eggs on milkweed, and the young caterpillars will eat practically nothing else.

I already have a small butterfly garden with Mexican sage, yarrow and lantana. Our thyme and allysum attract hordes of fiery skipper butterflies every summer. During some years, swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on our parsley, and we get a nice crop of swallowtails a few weeks later. But we don’t have any plants that are specific for Monarchs.

Oddly enough, one drawback to the milkweed is its extreme attractiveness to Monarchs. The caterpillars eat it down to nothing, and the plant is just sticks during the winter. But it’s a hardy perennial and will grow back every spring. My plan is to plant it in pots, moving them to a prominent part of the yard when the plant is in flower and putting them aside when the plants begin to look shabby or have gone dormant for the winter.

It takes tolerance to have a butterfly garden. While everyone likes butterflies, few like caterpillars.

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