Yesterday I saw a monarch butterfly in the garden. It nearly brought me to tears. Bright orange and black, it danced over the milkweed (asclepias speciosa) then landed and nectared from the pink and white flowers. It flew up and danced in the late afternoon sun and landed again for a longer time. I am hoping this meant it was female and was laying eggs on the milkweed. I am hoping for caterpillars in September. And then an emerald and gold chrysalis.
Monarch butterflies are rare in Myrtle Point. I saw one flying over Maple Street about seven years ago. About five years ago I planted some milkweed seeds I had gotten in the mail. They stayed small and struggled to make it in the shady front part of the house, so I re-planted them in one of my growing beds in full sun. In the last four years the milkweed thrived, sending rhizomes in all directions, threatening to take over the whole growing bed. The four replanted milkweeds are now twenty.
Even though the milkweed is native to Oregon, it, like the monarch that depends on it, is rare in Coos County. As I watched the milkweed take over the growing bed, I wondered if I was an idiot to plant it. After all, I had seen no monarch visiting them and found no caterpillars munching on them. Nothing in five years.
I was hoping to do my small part to help the western population of monarchs by planting the milkweed—the host plant for the caterpillars. The population has been declining for years due to pesticides and loss of habitat. The western population often winters in eucalyptus trees in southern California. The much larger eastern population migrates all ways to Mexico where it winters in the pine forest. The fly way of the western population is further inland from Myrtle Point, in the Willamette Valley and eastern Oregon. I planted milkweed on the edge of the monarch’s range.
Planting and tending the milkweed, therefore, has always felt like prayer. It was sowing without the certainty of reaping. It was laying out a welcome mat for a monarch that might never come.
Seeing one yesterday, felt like hope vindicated. The wings of the monarch were full of glory. It had been a long wait, but the king (or queen) returned.