Monday, September 18, 2006


Monarch butterflies have been important to me for as long as I can remember. They are a signal of the health of our environment. Their health is subject to a myriad of factors with mankind and weather issues being two huge influences.

I remember the first chrysalis I saw was in Miss Hathorne's second grade class. Someone brought one to school and she taped the whole stalk it hung from to the window above a bookcase. There it would receive some sun and we could see it hatch. There was great worry that the event would occur when we were home or during the weekend. I don't recall there was a line of kids wanting to "stay after" to be the first to see the special event but everyone was interested. Almost everyone.

A couple days passed and we reported to class to see that the beautiful shiny green chrysalis with the gold dots and black ribbing had turned a dark brownish-black. One classmate who clearly showed no promise in science quickly commented "Its rotted. I told you it wouldn't hatch."

But hatch it did and we got to see much of the process at the end of that day. When we left, it was still unfolding one wing which made no sense to us. The next day Miss Hathorne said it dried its wings soon after we left for the day and she opened the window and it flew away. It made for kind of a nice closing to a neat event.

Milkweed, Ascelepias syriaca, is the Monarch caterpillar's favorite food. Every year since we've lived here, I have avoided cutting the milkweed that occupies a bank behind the ligularia collection. Some people comment that it looks a little rough most of the time but that's why it's behind a fence to begin with. This year there have been butterflies everywhere but I have yet to see a caterpillar. The chrysalises are in abundance however, and I almost feel guilty when I move a stack of pots or a tarp and find one hanging on.

I was five when we moved to Vermont and our first spring here I found how important milkweed and cow slips were to real Vermonters. Milkweeds were the first spring green after dandelions. I learned they must be picked early and tender, and that they had to be boiled three times and always with hot water, not cold, on the water changes, to get rid of the bitter taste. Back then no amount of boiling made them taste good to me but I respected the old people and didn't mind helping pick.

The Monarchs are so plentiful this year that about every newspaper has run an article on them. The milkweed plant is critical to the life cycle but apparently the health of the plants in the wintering areas of Texas and Mexico are more important. Whatever was going on there last winter and early spring must have been perfect as this year's show has been special. If you haven't seen them yet, keep an eye out, as the migration is under way.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the temperature is a warm 64 degrees and the sound of a barred owl seems quite close this evening.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

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