Saving the monarch migration

A Malibu resident plants a garden to attract monarch butterflies in order to provide a place for them to live year round.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

For centuries on record, monarch butterflies have traveled to Southern California and Northern Mexico in an annual migration that might see six Danaus plexippus (the monarch’s scientific name) generations born and die each year, somehow passing along the genetic information that instructs them to fly distances of some 2,500 miles without a road map in order to meet, mate and survive cold northern winters.

In response to a threat of extinction posed by harsher-than-expected weather and unrestrained deforestation in the Mexican state of Michoacan, where North American monarchs have traditionally wintered, one Malibu resident is doing all she can to encourage the orange and black-winged insects to tarry in local backyards.

Lisa Pallack has teamed with horticulturist and landscape designer David Snow to create a garden so irresistible to butterflies that they’ll linger year round.

The secret– “milkweed,” Pallack said, leading a visitor down the terraced pathway of her backyard facing Lechusa Beach. “We can’t keep enough of it in, they eat through it so quickly.”

Pallack, a self-described “save the earth type,” was speaking with her friend Snow a couple of years ago and learned that monarch butterfly populations have been decreasing dramatically in recent years. Since Malibu is a way station on their annual migrations (monarchs who live west of the Rockies migrate between the Central California coast, notably Pacific Grove near Monterey and Northern Mexico), she thought to create an ambiance that would encourage a repopulation of the delicate insects that weigh less than a fifth of a penny.

Enter Snow, who counseled planting not just milkweed, but also various sages, buckwheat, yarrow and rock rose to nourish the monarchs throughout their life cycle, from eggs the size of strawberry seeds, to the fat caterpillars they become during a two-week feeding before they inch up into a safe bush, curl themselves into a “J” and become jade-colored chrysalises, to emerging butterflies.

“I started out to save an eco-system and then really got into the butterflies,” Pallack explained, pointing out the insects in various stages of development in her garden. “The fact that the garden is beautiful is sort of secondary to what we’re doing.”

Indeed, Snow and Pallack focused on planting California native species in the backyard that would attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Because they are indigenous, the garden is mostly drought-resistant and can withstand blustery, salt-laden breezes off the ocean. The year-round blooms provide nectar for the hovering birds and butterflies while filling the air with an intoxicating perfume.

Pallack is proprietary enough about her butterflies that she’ll rescue a chrysalis that has been knocked to the ground, carefully balancing it on a stick suspended in a plastic cup. Occasionally, she’ll keep them on her kitchen counter and watch as they emerge from their 12-day hibernation in the chrysalis, dry their wings and take off to find some nectar-laden flowers in the garden.

The rescue missions amuse Snow.

“Monarch butterflies have been around for millions of years without our help,” he said. “We thought they might be vulnerable to predators as caterpillars, but birds won’t touch them. The milkweed they eat is toxic to birds and the caterpillars carry that toxicity. So they’re safe crawling around the garden. It’s more the pesticides and cold that threaten them, so they stay near the coast.”

A walk around Pallack’s garden reveals tiny flyspecks of eggs deposited on milkweed branches, as well as yellow, black and white striped caterpillars munching the plants down to the nub. A careful search under jasmine leaves growing on the fence finds fat caterpillars preparing to hibernate. The only reason clouds of monarchs are not floating around is because of the cooler weather—monarchs need temperatures of at least 55 degrees to fly.

Snow’s and Pallack’s extended families have gotten caught up in the butterfly watch frenzy, nurturing chrysalises in school classrooms, tracking their migration and planting milkweed.

“We have the milkweed that monarchs particularly like, Asclepias tuberosa, which is a western variety,” Snow said. “But we’ve put in a lot of the native milkweeds also. Sometimes they eat through the plant so quickly, we have to search local nurseries to find more.”

Their diligence seems to be paying off. Amongst the riot of color created by the flowering sages, calliopsis, beard-tongue and St. Catherine’s Lace in Pallack’s garden, it is a veritable Club Med for monarchs. Neighbors have been tapped to preserve their supplies of milkweed growing unobserved in corners of their gardens.

As club member and editor of the Malibu Garden Club newsletter, Pallack is encouraged by her burgeoning butterfly population and anxious to spread the butterfly word among her gardening friends.

“Old timers around Malibu will tell you that they used to see tons of butterflies around here,” Pallack said, who has lived in Malibu about seven years. “With development over the past couple of decades, they are disappearing. But it’s so easy to create a butterfly garden. It’s pretty, it’s sustainable and you’re helping preserve one of nature’s most beautiful creatures.”

More information about monarchs, their life cycles and migration and raising butterflies can be found online at www.monarchwatch.org or www.monarch-butterfly.com.

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