Right now, Monarch butterflies are somewhere along the lower Eastern Seaboard on their long annual journey north from their winter home in Mexico. When they arrive in New Jersey, they will have a certified and registered Monarch Waystation waiting for them in Riverbank Park.
As the newly installed sign on the fence of the Kearny Butterfly Garden proclaims, the site “provides milkweed, nectar sources and shelter needed to sustain the Monarch butterflies as they migrate through North America.”
This is no small matter. The butterflies need all the help they can get. Nature authorities say the Monarch population is at a 20-year low, which should concern us all since the butterflies are an indicator of our general environmental health — “like a canary in a coal mine,” said one expert.
The reason for the crisis is the loss of milkweed, primarily because of herbicides, though urban spawl has played a role. Milkweed is the one and only plant on which Monarch caterpillars can feed. When the milkweed disappears, so do the Monarchs.
Those caterpillars, by the way, are striped in the same magnificent orange and black of the butterflies (which remind us of stained-glass windows). If tigers had a larval stage, they’d look like this.
Thanks to Jenny and David Mach, who founded the garden in 2012, it has plenty of milkweed and flowers whose nectar attracts all manner of butterflies. The Monarchs haven’t arrived yet, but others abound. And that’s thanks to students from Kearny and East Newark who raised Painted Lady butterflies in their classrooms and recently released them at the garden.
We missed the “butterflies are freed” events, but we were witness to another release, that of 4,500 ladybugs by members of Roosevelt School Brownie Troop 10648.
These ladybugs weren’t raised in a classroom; they were mailed from California, in a little cotton bag in a cardboard box. It cost only $10 for the entire lot (plus $30 for shipping). An excellent investment, because the ladybugs will protect the vegetables in the adjacent Kearny Community Garden from predatory aphids.
Protecting that garden from predatory groundhogs are lots of marigolds. Groundhogs “hate the smell of marigolds,” David Mach explained. “If not for the marigolds, they’d eat all our plants.” Home gardeners, take note.
Mach gave the Brownies a tour of both gardens. The girls planted zinnias and cosmos in the Butterfly Garden, which is truly thriving and truly lovely. As he told the Brownies, “It’s full of flowers the butterflies love.”
At the start of their visit, some of the little ones seemed a bit shy and hesitant. But Mach reassured them that butterflies “can’t bite you, they can’t sting you, and if they land on you, that is supposed to be very good luck.”
By the end of the program, the kids were vying to answer his quiz questions, calling out spontaneous warnings of “Groundhog!” when one of the critters emerged from the brush, and squealing with laughter as the ladybugs were freed.
(We squealed with fright when a Brownie cried, “Waterbug!” We have a waterbug phobia, having seen some in the city that were the size of lobsters, but this turned out to merely be a tiny unidentified insect that had fallen into a puddle. Thanks.)
On the Kearny Butterfly Garden Facebook page, you can see a video of the Brownies’ visit. It’s the one marked “Warning: This video contains maximum screaming for joy.” Which pretty much summed up the afternoon.
That page also has much fascinating info. Such as this:
Q. How do butterflies find our garden?
A. They can see more colors than we can even comprehend . . . Their eyes have five color receptors, two more than humans, so in addition to seeing two colors we don’t have names for, butterflies can see a massive spectrum of color our brains aren’t even capable of processing.
(There are photos illustrating how butterflies can see nectar, which appears to them as a different color from the flower bearing it. Who knew?)
But there’s nothing like seeing the garden in person, and you have an invitation. It is open to the public and can be found in Riverbank Park on Passaic Ave. south of S. Midland Ave. Look for the rustic wooden fence.
There’s free parking in a lot just to the south of the nearby auto repair business.
If you’d like to start your own butterfly garden at home, lots of information is available at www.monarchwatch.org, which is crusading to save the butterflies and which sponsors the Monarch Waystations. You could end up having one of those in your own backyard.
However, you will need milkweed, and as we learned in Kearny, milkweed is indeed a weed, and you must tend to it or it can devour your property. Much like a groundhog devours vegetable gardens.
Still, what’s a little weed trimming now and then?
Especially when you might be saving a spectacular species of butterfly?