Several years ago, on a trip to the nursery for my usual array of annual bedding plants, I picked up a small perennial called "Butterfly Weed". It was one of the first perennials I ever purchased, and I bought it for the name alone. I loved the name; how could I not love a plant called Butterfly Weed? The name is almost oxymoronic, because to a gardener, butterflies are beautiful and desirable, but a weed is...well, a weed.
At first, I thought the name derived from the bright orange clusters of tiny flowers, that, viewed from a distance, look a bit like butterflies. But the sticker said that Asclepias tuberosa is a perennial that attracts butterflies.
Uh-huh. Sure. An appealing concept, but I was skeptical. It sounded too much like the plant equivalent of any number of other appealing but elusive concepts that have ultimately proved disappointing to me over the years, such as "Achieve financial success!" or "Be your own boss!".
Still, I liked the name, and the plant was inexpensive, so I bought it. Regarding where to plant it, the sticker said: "Butterfly weed grows best in full sun, with sandy, well draining soil". That was a perfect description of the most inhospitable spot in my yard. The flower bed beneath the mailbox is a sunny, dry, quarter circle of earth that not only never gets any shade, but is additionally baked by being adjacent, on two sides, to the sidewalk.
With some misgivings, I planted the baby Butterfly Weed there. To my surprise, the tiny plant took hold...and grew, and eventually thrived, apparently sending its taproot down deep. It requires no care, and each spring, I’m rewarded with clusters of tiny, bright orange flowers that last throughout the hot, dry Texas summers, whether the plant gets water or not.
In late September, I always cut it back to nothing, after which it goes dormant, survives the winter, and revives each spring. And yes, it does attract butterflies, which is a nice bonus. In fact, since then, I’ve planted so many butterfly-attracting plants that Katharine once quipped that coming to see me made her feel a little like she was going to visit Snow White in the forest...but I digress.
One day earlier this month when I walked out to get my mail, I found the Butterfly Weed covered in monarch larvae, happily munching away on the tender green parts of the plant. I was delighted, but also worried. Larvae are voracious feeders, and the plant was covered with more than a dozen of them; would they destroy it? That thought only lasted a moment before I was overcome with the wonder of what I was seeing.
I ran inside and got my camera, and trying not to imagine the conversations I might be inspiring in my more conventional neighbors, ("Look here, George! She’s at it again! Look at her, rolling around on the hot sidewalk out there! And you wanted me to fix her up with my brother, NO WAY! Look at her, rolling around out there, what’s she DOING?"), I laid down on the sidewalk and started shooting.
The next day, they were gone, and although the plant looked a little worse for wear, other than that, it was as if they’d never been there.
Except...I know that they were. Since then, I’ve read up on Monarchs. The larva stage only lasts for about 12 days, after which the larvae become pupae, spending the next 9-14 days suspended inside chrysalides, before emerging as gorgeous, full-blown, Monarch butterflies. I’ve searched the shrubs and trees around my house, looking for chrysalides, and I haven’t found a single one...
But I know they’re out there. And some morning soon, whether I see them or not, any number of full blown, gorgeous Monarch butterflies will emerge and fly away. And one of the plants in my yard played a part in all that.