by Mimi Hedl
About a week ago, two monarch butterflies appeared behind the wood shed, the earliest I can remember a monarch sighting. The common milkweed had just emerged from dormancy. It stood about 3 inches high, the leaves tightly wrapped around the stem. The females kept lighting on the closed leaves, as if by their presence they could persuade the leaves to unfurl and grow tall. They had no luck.
I had seen a couple more mature milkweeds in the path by the grape arbor, about 100 feet away. I had avoided mowing them, wanting every bit of food possible for potential larva. It seemed a little silly to skirt the mower around those few plants, as hundreds grew in the meadow, but with the monarch population in decline, my instincts told me save all milkweed. How could I tell the ladies to fly up into the northern meadow, where they’d find hospitable birthing leaves? I hovered around them as they did around the small milkweed. I worked away, pruning and trimming, constantly looking up to spot the monarchs.
After about an hour, they had migrated to the proper spot. I put down my shovel, and went up to watch as she laid I don’t know how many eggs. I knew they’d hatch in a few days, but I forgot about them until yesterday, when a couple of young friends stopped by for a visit. I showed them the milkweed plants, now more than a foot tall, and told them about watching the female lay eggs. I took them up to the site, for dramatic impact. Ann bent down to look, and said, “What’s that?” I looked down, and with great pleasure announced, “That’s a monarch caterpillar!” It was less than 1/16th of an inch long, so small my well-used eyes probably wouldn’t have spotted it. As we looked closer and at more milkweed plants, we saw dozens and dozens of small caterpillars. “Be still my beating heart.”
If anything could save me from the browning of the pasture, this sight surely did. Seeing the monarch potential helped me see the long-term good of converting fescue to natives, and lessened the pain of the process. Just imagine how many milkweed plants can grow on 25 acres!