On a sunny Saturday in early June, Duluth’s First United Methodist Church was bustling with people buying small milkweed plants, children with faces painted like butterflies, and caterpillars crawling on milkweed leaves layered in tubs.
Members of the all-ages crowd were there to celebrate and learn about a small insect that’s on the decline: the monarch butterfly.
With pollinator habitats — including the milkweed plant favored by monarchs — collapsing across the country, some people in Duluth are doing their part to help sustain the critical habitats. They’re growing monarch-friendly gardens for several reasons: part environmental advocacy and part love for the insect and gardening. To further support the declining population, some also raise monarchs.
Extinction threatens various types of pollinators, according to a global assessment published in 2016 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. While extinction wasn't clearly defined for some bees and butterflies, the report said they're facing "high levels of threat."
At June’s festival, hosted by Duluth Monarch Buddies, milkweed for purchase covered a row of tables. This long-leafed plant is a cornerstone of monarch gardens, as monarchs lay their eggs only on milkweed plants. It’s also the sole plant that the caterpillars will eat.
Pollinators, like monarchs, wild bees, bats and ants, spread pollen from plant to plant. This fertilizes plants, allowing them to produce seeds, fruit and nuts, according to the Center for Pollinator Research at Penn State.
Those who grow monarch-friendly gardens say it’s easy and accessible for anyone to do, as milkweed is a low-care plant.
Dan Schuttee, owner of Shoreview Natives, which designs and installs gardens with a focus on supporting pollinators, said he promotes these gardens as they offer numerous benefits — to the gardeners and earth.
“I think it’s a fun tool for people to be like, ‘wow, this is something I can do and feel good about.’ And (they) make a tangible, visible impact of good on the environment,” Schuttee said.
‘Anybody can do this’
More than 50 monarch waystations — gardens with milkweed and nectar sources — dot yards across Duluth.
Some waystations are as large as 5,000 square feet, and others are around 200 square feet, according to a registry list from the national Monarch Waystation Program.
But this list doesn’t encompass every monarch-friendly garden in the area. With a little research, Schuttee said anyone can grow and maintain a garden.
“You can do it in your own yard. You don’t have to have a great big farm,” said Cindy French, who was with Wild Ones, a group dedicated to native plants, at the festival. “You can take a little piece of your front yard, backyard (and) do all these things to make a difference.”
French said she likes to plant native plants, some of which flower for pollinators, in her garden. Her garden is also a waystation. She said it’s easy to take care of, but a bit more work — like weeding invasive grass — is required during the first few years to help them “establish.”
“They’re very easy. And that’s one of the things about native (plants) — you’re not supposed to have to babysit them forever,” she said.
She’s glad it’s now more acceptable to have a yard full of native plants, which French said is only a recent change. “I’m just really excited that people are getting interested in all of this stuff because I think it’s much more beautiful.”
Duluth Monarch Buddies President Tom Uecker agreed. In previous years, he said people treated milkweed as a weed. Now, Uecker said people are starting to recognize milkweed’s importance.
“I like to tell people: no milkweed, no monarchs,” he said. “We’re really trying to encourage people to recognize (that) milkweed is a native plant. ... It’s not some kind of foreign invader,” he said.
Joan Scinocca has a monarch waystation tucked in the corner of her garden, which wraps around her house and spills into the front yard.
Her garden is home to a variety of plants, including verbena, bee balm and lily of the valley, among many other plants She’s also planted swamp milkweed throughout the sunny section of her garden to help monarchs. “Just find a sunny spot and stick some in and see what happens. It can’t hurt,” she said.
Schuttee said he encourages families to tackle growing monarch gardens. “The families and the kids just go nuts. Because every kid loves being outside and watching the butterflies,” he said. “They wind up making responsible decisions as adults because they developed to care about the environment during their formative years.”
Beyond the garden
Some Duluth residents' work for monarchs go beyond the garden. Scinocca has been raising monarchs for several years.
She’s always been interested in gardening, but her passion for monarchs began when her daughter’s class grew monarchs. “Just to see her excited about something, got me interested,” Scinocca said.
And the low survival rate of monarchs and caterpillars has influenced Scinocca’s work to continue growing them, she said.
Scinocca closely monitors her garden for caterpillars on milkweed. She recently found several small caterpillars underneath milkweed leaves in her garden.
When she finds caterpillars in her garden, she brings them inside and places them on milkweed in containers and mesh cages. The smaller caterpillars are separated from the larger ones.
The cages require nearly daily cleaning, as butterflies and caterpillars make small droppings. “The bigger they get, the more the mess they make,” she said.
A caterpillar will stay on the milkweed until it's ready to move to the top of the cage and form a chrysalis, which hangs from the top. From this, a butterflies emerges.
A passion for monarchs
People with a passion for supporting monarchs say it comes from a want to help the environment, as well as a love for the insect.
Schuttee said growing pollinator gardens is important because it’s a matter of supporting human food sources. The continued collapse of pollinators would be detrimental to food crops.
“This is something … no matter where you’re at, if you have control of a piece of property … and put pollinator habitat in — for one, it’s going to be more beautiful. And two, you’re helping this global crisis,” he said.
Uecker, the monarch group's president, has a monarch garden and raises monarchs. He said he does this because he doesn’t want them to disappear.
“It’s just like any natural thing in the world; I don’t want monarchs to disappear — or anything else that’s in our world to disappear,” he said.
French said she likes monarchs because everyone notices them, which draws attention to a bigger issue.
“They’re kind of like an ambassador for other pollinators,” she said. “They start paying attention to the dwindling number of monarchs and why that’s happening.”