Our Butterfly Rest Stop

Although the grace and beauty of all butterflies is captivating, monarchs are magical. Their bright orange color, their black bordered wings with alluring spots are a bouquet for the eyes. As a child, when the school year began in Minnesota I remember them arriving in numbers to rest a bit and grab a snack in my mom’s front garden. What I didn’t know then was the distance they had to navigate. Their flight from the Midwestern United States to Michoacan, Mexico is over 2000 miles (more than 3200K). Since a monarch can fly between 50 and 100 miles a day (80-128K), that’s a 20-40 day trip! How can their folded tissue paper wings endure such mileage in cold and rainy fall weather? These creatures must be hardier than they first appear.

Flowering Milkweed (Algodoncillo en flor) by Rebecca Cuningham 2018

Monarch migration is central to the beliefs of the indigenous people of Michoacan and the Mexica Aztecs. When the butterflies return to their homeland in early November, they are the souls of the dead returning to spend time with their loved ones. Mexican families decorate graves and home altar ofrendas to welcome the spirits in the All Soul’s holiday, Día de los Muertos November 1 and 2. That time of year millions of butterflies land in the Mexican mountain forests near the village of Angangueo, flocking to the pine and oyamel trees, covering them with their delicate bodies. The forest is now part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve to preserve the unique place these butterflies overwinter from October to March. Monarch numbers are diminishing, in part due to the decrease in milkweed, the caterpillar’s cradle and food source, in the rural United States.

Milkweed by Rebecca Cuningham 2018

Two years ago we planted milkweed in the green swath next to our driveway here in Wisconsin. The plant propagated itself from three to 20 stalks, ready for the insects to lay eggs in fly-by-nurseries. Now it brings several dozen more flyers than I saw before. Six years ago, I planted four purple asters in our rain garden. Late each fall I’ve spread the seeds and now we have about eight stands of six plants each. Asters are hardy autumn perennials that give butterflies a good drink of nectar. Their wings flap as they sip, as if to say, “Mmmm!”

Last Saturday, my husband and child came dashing into the house, “You’ve got to come outside, there are so many monarchs! We can’t even count!” Out the back door, we three stood in wonder as butterflies’ circular flights danced over purple asters. “One-two-three-four-five-si…!” our little one said. Then the thirsty travelers would rearrange their grazing pattern and we’d start over, “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eig…!”. In ten minutes, we counted eleven. We hope we didn’t skip anyone. Our family counts monarch visitors each year. This is the best one yet; 71 in our backyard and 88 total counting those around town. The $10 we spent and the time gardening has brought us big smiles in return.

What simple acts bring you great joy?

Gracias readers and olé! -Rebecca

Haz un clic en el título para leer Meriendas para mariposas monarcas.

Monarchs drinking purple aster nectar by Rebecca Cuningham 2018


Rebecca Cuningham

22 thoughts on “Our Butterfly Rest Stop

  1. Very interesting, I did not know about the migration! We have a wildflower garden and a milkweed plant came up one year – I never planted one or had seeds, it must have “migrated” via birds.. Now we have about 7 plants. Every year I spread their seeds so we have more.. It was until this year that we started seeing butterflies though..

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Well, Sonoma County has its own natural beauty; grapes and ocean to mention two. Yes, scientists still aren’t sure how these butterflies find their way to Michoacan, land of their foremothers which the generation of migrating monarchs have not seen before.


  2. Good for you for helping to save the monarchs, R! When I was growing up (in Northern California), a vacant lot down the street was full of pale grey soft-petaled milkweed plants (different-looking than the variety in your photo), and every year we saw fat, striped caterpillars and beautiful monarchs. Once a house was built on that lot, I don’t recall ever seeing any again around here. They are beautiful creatures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Becky, thanks for your comment! What a telling story about loss of supporting habitat for monarchs in Northern CA. I’ve noticed a lot of new milkweed plantings in Wisconsin in the past five years and I am hopeful for a resurgence of this beautiful creature.

      Liked by 2 people

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