Eleanor Laney remembers a time when it was easy to spot a butterfly fluttering by or perched on a flower. But for her and many other avid gardeners, these sightings have become increasingly rare.
In the last few decades, the population of migrating monarch butterflies has dramatically decreased worldwide. The decline has led local gardeners, including the Palo Alto Garden Club, which Laney chairs, to try to do something about it to educate the public on the plight of monarchs as well as how individual gardeners can help by planting native milkweed and nectar plants.
Monarchs are just one among a group of pollinators -- including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats and other butterflies -- whose numbers are decreasing. A presidential memorandum issued by President Obama in June 2014 aimed to create a federal strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators, including the monarch. The loss of pollinators poses a threat to the stability of food production systems, the agricultural sector and the health of the environment.
Gail Morey, a member of the Woodside-Atherton Garden Club, pointed out that most people do not understand how important monarchs and other pollinators are to our food. "Pollinators are responsible for one in every four bites of food. The health of pollinators is imperative for our overall health going forward," she said.
Barbara Tuffli, national horticulture chairman for the Garden Club of America and member of the Woodside-Atherton Garden Club, sees the decline of the monarch as a symptom of a larger issue.
"When you see 80 percent of monarch butterflies disappearing, you have to ask yourself, "Why?" Is there anything we can do? It should be a warning to us all," Tuffli said.
That's where community garden clubs come in. "The monarch butterfly is emblematic of our taking care of the larger cycle of life of which we are just a tiny part," Laney said. The monarch's decline, she said, is largely due to the loss of native milkweed, which is the only plant on which a monarch lays its eggs and the monarch caterpillar's sole source of food. Native milkweed has been adversely affected by the use of pesticides and habitat reduction.
"It is now incumbent on individual gardeners to plant milkweed in their gardens because that is how we will save the monarch butterfly," Laney said.
Local residents are encouraged to plant native milkweed and nectar plants at least 10 miles from monarch overwintering sites to encourage the monarch's migration. But this isn't quite as easy as it sounds. It is important to avoid planting non-native milkweed because it does not die back in the winter (which, disrupts the monarch's migration as a result), and it infects the caterpillar with a virus.
In her efforts to spread the message to the community, Laney visits schools and helps organize events where she dons butterfly wings and an antenna headband, appealing to people's silly side. Palo Alto Garden Club members jokingly call themselves the "Monarch Mamas," though officially the project is called the Monarch Migration Revival.
Anyone who is willing to plant native milkweed and share their address with the Palo Alto Garden Club can become a "Monarch Mama" (or "Papa"). The group asks for participant's addresses for the purpose of adding them to a virtual map of milkweed plants in the area.
"We want to provide a contiguous path of milkweed for the monarch butterfly to come through," Laney said.
The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History provides free seed distribution for milkweed and nectar plants for the purpose of creating milkweed and nectar corridors.