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Monarchs, milkweed and a mission

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Monarchs, milkweed and a mission

Margaret Thompson

Got milkweed?

Margaret Drody Thompson does and she’s giving it away with a catch.

Please plant, don’t pitch, she advises, a butterfly’s life depends on it.

Thompson, 85, is talking about the monarch butterfly, a species whose habitat is threatened and survival hovers on the help of human hands.

Thompson knows she’s only one link in the vital chain but, when an announcement was made asking gardeners to help save the monarchs, Thompson promptly planted more – adding the milkweed to an already flourishing garden.

Monarchs, the tiny colorful herbivores often seen fluttering among the bright blooms of a butterfly garden, reproduce four times a year.

Granted a limited life span, monarchs live for a few short weeks with the exception of the fourth batch.

Hatched in late fall, the fourth and final generation is tasked with carrying on the future of fellow monarchs and must migrate to warmer climates to escape the wintry weather, often traveling up to 3,000 miles to retreats in Mexico and California.

In order to prepare prior to the transformation which will set them in motion for flight, caterpillars prefer to dine alone, feeding exclusively on their own milkweed plant prior to the metamorphosis into a butterfly.

Without the necessary nourishment, threats for the monarch’s survival are severe.

“The monarch butterfly populations are declining due to loss of habitat,” said Monarch Watch Director, Chip Taylor.

Hurricanes don’t help matters.

“I’m a Hugo survivor,” said Thompson. “After that storm, I didn’t see a butterfly for a year.”

The biggest threat, however, is the war waged on the weed that does a caterpillar good.

“I have only had about 3 milkweed plants at a time in the yard.” said Thompson.

Thompson has an entire garden planted on her property in Pinopolis to protect winged wanderers that feast on the butterfly buffet she has carefully cultivated.

“I have planned my whole yard around flowers, trees, bushes that help feed birds, and butterflies,” said Thompson. “I probably planted the first milkweed plants in 2003.”

Unfortunately, when the call came to save the milkweed, growers took advantage.

“The demand created a run on the market and they became scarce and hard to find and buy,” said Thompson. “Some growers of milkweed are asking very exorbitant prices for those precious plants now because there are not enough to go around.”

Thompson said there was a grower charging $47 for one plant.

But even with the high prices, Thompson persevered.

“I have planted some milkweed seed this year, hoping for more plants that will hopefully help produce more butterflies next year,” she said. “It takes a whole bush to feed a caterpillar enough to become a chrysalis.”

Once the milkweed was planted, Thompson went on a new mission: find a chrysalis — the tiny sac spun by the caterpillar where it remains for about two weeks.

The butterfly then emerges to make the journey of many miles, headed to nestle in the trees of the warmer climates found in Mexico and California. South Carolina is one of the states where the monarch rests and feeds on its journey south.

Thompson explained that when more than one egg is laid on a plant and the eggs produce the larvae, they will devour each other.

Cute and fuzzy turns carnivorous preventing the completion of the chain of events leading to life for the butterfly.

“In the past I have looked for the tiny, tiny eggs and haven’t found any. I have watched for the caterpillars and didn’t see any,” said Thompson. “The birth of the Monarch in my yard this year was a miracle considering all the things that can go wrong in nature that works against that chrysalis.

“I got to thinking about the reason I would always checkfor a chrysalis,” Thompson said crediting her sister Mary McKay for the interest.

“I learned about protecting them while going through their metamorphosis and drying their wings in safety. She made it a game for her neighborhood young who got to name a drying butterfly and then release it when it was ready to fly.”

It would take until this year for Thompson to finally find a chrysalis in her own backyard.

“I went out looking one morning at the beginning of October, and there it was,” she said.

According to Taylor, assuring a future for monarch’s means conservation and restoration of milkweed needs to become a national priority and Thompson agrees.

“I try to find something new to add that assists these lovely things in nature each year,” said Thompson.

“This year I added Gaillardia plants in shades of yellow and gold; sage in hot pinks, yellow and purple,” said Thompson noing she always plants zinnias and petunias and adds roses when she finds a new color.

For now, the future of milkweed and the monarch hangs in the balance and Thompson will continue her plight to change that. She explains that once a plant is stripped bare, the lone chrysalis remains for about two weeks before the butterfly emerges and a life begins.

The milkweed sprouts new growth and the cycle repeats itself.

Without willing human hands to help, the threat of survival remains.

Born to fly, the butterflies exit the pupa state as black, orange and white adults, a pattern known to predators as poisonous and inedible.

With only one round trip to make before their short lives end, they follow the same route their ancestors took returning to lay eggs for the next generation to repeat the process.

And Thompson will be waiting with milkweed.