Jay Beard, of Lone Star Nursery, holds a milkweed plant with a caterpillar, which will one day become a monarch butterfly.
From his backyard greenhouse, Jay Beard hangs a lot of hope on two small caterpillars latched onto a couple of milkweed plants. A few steps away, a delicate green chrysalis dangles from a plant container. One day, these will become orange, black and white monarch butterflies, whose population numbers have been plummeting in recent years.
Beard wants to help bring back these brilliantly colored butterflies, known for their incredible journeys through Texas, by encouraging everyone to plant milkweed, on which they depend.
Each autumn, these butterflies migrate from Canada and the eastern United States through Texas to Mexico for the winter. In the spring, they return north again, “breeding and developing through two to four or more generations as they spread north,” according to “A Field Guide to Common Texas Insects.”
Their caterpillars eat only milkweed, the field guide said. The butterflies also lay eggs on milkweed.
Beard, who owns the certified organic Lone Star Nursery with his wife Flint Beard, grows multiple kinds of the perennial plant.
This month, two area farmers markets, working with Lone Star Nursery, will be offering free milkweed seeds and seedlings, in an effort to get more people to plant it for the butterflies. The “Feed the Monarch” event will be at the Cedar Park Farmers’ Market from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 22 and at the Mueller Farmers’ Market from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 23. (For more information, check the posting at texasfarmersmarket.org.)
Last fall, those farmers markets, with Lone Star Nursery, gave away roughly 350 packets of milkweed seeds to visitors during a similar event, Beard said. Seeds for two native varieties and one tropical variety were handed out, he said.
Carla Jenkins, who operates the Cedar Park and Mueller farmers markets, feels passionate about helping the butterflies because she has seen up close the beauty of their masses clustered together in Mexico, when she visited in 2002.
“In the forest, the boughs of the trees were bent over from all the millions of live monarchs,” she said. “It was pretty incredible.” Since then, she’s been keeping a watch on the plight of the monarch butterfly, which is designated as the Texas state insect.
Their decreasing numbers has been a source of concern in recent years.
Last month, the World Wildlife Fund and the Mexican government said the butterflies spending the winter in Mexico used only 1.65 acres of forest, down drastically from previous years, according to a New York Times story. In 1996, these butterflies took up about 45 acres of forest, the story said.
The population is estimated to have decreased from 60 million in 2012 to about 33 million this year, according to a Washington Post story.
Experts in a November story in the New York Times also attribute decreases in the numbers to loss of native vegetation as corn prices increase and farmers use more land to plant the lucrative crop. Also detrimental, it said, is farmers using an herbicide that can kill most plants except those genetically modified to withstand it.
Other factors cited for this decline include extreme climates and deforestation.
Jay Beard said he first got interested in milkweed after customers began asking whether he grew native varieties. He decided to research the feasibility because of limited space at his quarter-acre East Austin nursery. He found that milkweed can be difficult to grow, but that became a challenge to the self-taught horticulturalist.
“These are hard to germinate,” he said. “I can do that.”
He said it might be easier for gardeners to plant milkweed using seedlings from small containers; that way, “you’ve already got an established root system,” he said.
Even a small garden, such as 4-foot-by-4-foot area, would be beneficial, he said.
“You would have a huge area for dining for the butterflies,” he said.
Jenkins said this is a great opportunity to educate the public, and that children enjoyed receiving the seeds last year.
“It’s surprising how much they know about monarchs,” Jenkins said. She added that she finds it appropriate for the farmers markets to help promote this effort because of the role farmers have played in reducing the amount of milkweed.
“They just considered milkweed to be weeds, so they totally decimated it,” Jenkins said. “Our thinking is if we can get as many families to plant it in their yard, what a wonderful reward that would be.”
While detractors may say that home gardeners cannot counter such large-scale losses, Chip Taylor, an insect ecologist at the University of Kansas who founded Monarch Watch (www.monarchwatch.org) in 1992, disagrees.
“We’re not just going to roll over here. We’re going to restore as much habitat as we can,” Taylor said. ”(Milkweed) is the only plant that sustains the larvae.”
Monarch Watch encourages people to set up “way stations” that provide the needed resources for monarch butterflies to reproduce and migrate. There are about 7,500 registered way stations, he said.
Jay Beard said that, while longer-term solutions are called for, the short-term answer is “at least getting the home gardener knowledgeable about the problem and getting them to plant it.”
At heart, Beard said, he is an optimist.
“I guarantee, if people plant more milkweed, we’re going to have more monarchs,” he said. “Period.” As proof, he said, he only has to gaze at the tiny black-white-and-yellow-striped creatures clinging to the seedlings at his nursery.
“We’ve got caterpillars in our greenhouse now.”
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