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.
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.
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
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