Katharine Steele is an avid gardener who likes identifying plants. Milkweed she once spotted in a meadow prompted a longtime interest in butterflies, because they are attracted to milkweed.
Her focus is monarch butterflies, those orange-and-black butterflies familiar in North America that migrate in fall from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico and California.
Steele grows four kinds of milkweed in her south Charlotte yard to help the monarch butterfly: Butterfly milkweed, Common milkweed, Swamp milkweed and Tropical milkweed.
Steele said Common milkweed can be invasive, so avoid planting it where that might be an issue.
Some sources advise against planting Tropical milkweed, which is not a plant native to the area. The plant might discourage monarchs from migrating, Steele said, adding she doesn’t think that is the case.
Still, there are many milkweed species, and it is best for gardeners to plant what is native to their area, Steele said. She encourages others to plant milkweed and delivers presentations to groups such as the Charlotte Council of Garden Clubs.
“It doesn’t take a lot of space to have milkweed plants growing in your garden,” she said.
Female monarchs must have milkweed on which to deposit eggs. Monarch
caterpillars eat milkweed, and it serves as a nectar plant for adult monarchs, Steele said.
She said it is important to offer a water source, such as a simple saucer with raised edges and pebbles in it on which the butterflies can land. She also said over-ripe fruit can be made available, or people can grow nectar plants such as lantana.
Habitat-loss from development, certain agricultural practices and herbicide use are factors Steele cited as threats to the monarch population.
Monarch Watch is an education, conservation and research organization that promotes the creation of habitats known as “Monarch Waystations.”
Monarch butterflies are found throughout the country, and in 1996 totaled some 1 billion; however, the numbers have declined by about 90 percent in recent years, according to a document on the website of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Steele, 84, is self-taught about butterflies. She knows about raising monarchs indoors and studied how to clip sections of milkweed where she finds eggs, bringing the plant indoors to a protected terrarium.
The monarch caterpillars, which need fresh milkweed, are ravenous eaters, she said.
Butterflies go through four stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and adult. Steele watches the entire “miraculous engineering of this wonderful insect that we see flitting in our gardens,” she said.
She even traveled to Mexico years ago on a trip sponsored by Southern Living magazine to visit where monarch butterflies go for winter, she said. She and others hiked a mountain for the best vantage point.
“It’s like hearing snow fall – that sort of quietness – as the butterflies are flying in the air,” Steele said.
Hope Yancey is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Hope? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.