We were hosting four grandchildren this week on an overnight stay, and had most of a day until late afternoon that we would spend with them.
So we planned to make a day of it—french toast for breakfast, a trip to the Natural History Museum and Old Capitol at the University of Iowa, lunch out, some park play, finishing it off with afternoon ice cream.
As it turned out, the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes work at as well as you could possibly expect. These four young grandchildren are old enough to enjoy the museums, liked playing in a city park in Coralville, and appreciated the ice cream. It was a good day, according to plan.
And it was also unexpectedly much better. I was glad the museums don’t open until 10, because packing up four young children takes a bit of time. And as we were slowly accumulating all the stuff we needed, encouraging children to take restroom breaks and don shoes, something wonderful that was not on the agenda took place.
As I was carrying a bag with sunscreen and bug repellent out to our minivan, I noticed a Monarch butterfly nervously flitting about. I have tried to grow Milkweed in my gardens for years, with little results, but for some reason things are different this year—“Butterfly Flower” purchased from a local nursery came back strong this year, and Common Milkweed seeds chose this spring of all springs to finally germinate and strongly grow.
And it did not take much time this year for butterflies to find this new habitat. I have not been able to locate pupae, and so I’m not sure if any butterflies have resulted from my efforts, but clearly butterflies have been laying eggs on my plants, based on the caterpillars.
It is funny, I think, that most of the time gardeners are not thrilled to have caterpillars consuming their work, except when Milkweed is planted. Then, the larval stage of this pretty insect is most welcome.
Anyway, back to our museum day adventure. Monarchs are not particularly skittish, as butterflies go. They live their lives knowing that their caterpillar diet has made them nasty to eat, so they are fairly bold. What was wrong with this skittish, spastic specimen of a usually serene insect species?
I paused and watched. And then I figure out what she was doing. She would land quickly on a leaf, hanging on to the edge, and loop her body under the leaf, then flit to another leaf and repeat.
This female insect was bursting with eggs and was depositing said eggs in my garden.
I called out to the grandchildren. They responded to my urgent calls as grandchildren usually do—slowly, one at a time. The mother butterfly flitted off and I was worried they had missed the show.
But no—as I encouraged grandchildren to exit the house and get settled in the van for the trip to Iowa City, she kept coming back. She laid eggs on the Common Milkweed while one granddaughter watched. Another saw her as she focused on nearby Butterfly Flower.
And once all the kids were in the van, she provided her best show. There is a tall, spiky flower in my side garden that showed up for the first time this year and bloomed in small pink flowers in a broccoli shape. Common Milkweed blooms pink in pom-pom shapes—and none of my young plants of that sort have bloomed yet, anyway. But, I suspected that this tall plant was Swamp Milkweed, which is just a another variety of the butterfly –friendly family of plants.
Confirmation came this morning. For the first time, we spotted caterpillars munching on that side garden plant—Monarchs don’t make many mistakes. Milkweed is what this plant is.
And, as if she thought it was her duty to teach young children one last nature lesson, as the doors of the van were still hanging open but the children seated within, the butterfly came back again, landing on the side of the swamp plant that was just feet away from the nearest grandchild sitting in a van.
She hung at the end of the leaf, curled her bottom side over, which seemed like she was posing for the best egg laying photo I managed to get, and then took off.
There, on the bottom side of leaf, was the egg.
That was cool.
We adopted a caterpillar at the recent Monarch Fest held at the Indian Creek Nature Center, and it formed its cocoon last week. I am still hoping it will emerge before I leave for a week of riding a bicycle across Iowa, but there is no sign of change from it yet.
Still, it felt like we were exposed to the full range of Monarch life cycle Wednesday—several caterpillars, a busy laying adult, a clear view of an egg and the cocoon in my kitchen.
Thank you, butterflies, for making a good day a great day. The day seemed like it had potential to be a good one anyway—and it was. Luckily, the thousand things that could have gone wrong (sick child, serious meltdown, big fight) did not take place. The children enjoyed themselves, which meant the grandparents enjoyed themselves.
And beyond the museums, there was the impromptu lesson provided by a skittish insect. So often in life, spontaneous pleasures are the best.
If you haven’t, find some Butterfly Flowers and plant them in your garden. And Monarchs aren’t the only pollinator in trouble, but plants that help them, including native flowers like cone flowers, aren’t hard to plant, either. Recall that fall is the time to sew Common Milkweed seeds. It may take a few years, the plants grow when they want to and not on your time schedule, but there are rewards for the effort.