October 22, 2010

The Milkweed Connection

Union Leader Correspondent

t has been a month now since the monarch butterfl ies have gone from here.
Each year they migrate south to their ancestral home in the mountains of central Mexico. Like fragile-winged snow birds seeking something stronger than sun, they find their way to a place they’ve never been, collecting on tree limbs like a million pulsing
In the spring, they head back in the direction from which they came, following the scent of milkweed blooms, breeding and dying along the way, their offspring continuing the journey home. 
It is the fourth generation of these butterflies that complete the cycle and find their way back to the milkweed planted in the Children’s Garden at Robert Frost Farm to breed. 
It is the only plant a monarch caterpillar can eat. 
The milkweed was planted purposefully, said Derry Garden Club member Blanche Garone, “for the butterflies,” she said, who are drawn to the garden and its life-giving nourishment by some hard-wired act of nature that is as inexplicable as it is magical. 
A monarch will lay only one egg per plant. When the caterpillars emerge, they feast on the milkweed, its sap laden with a chemical that renders the caterpillars toxic to its predators, even after they emerge as butterflies. 
By fall, the flowers in the garden are faded. The last caterpillar has climbed from its chrysalis, dried its wings in the sun and fluttered off to find the place where its great-greatgreat- grandmother wintered home. 
And so it is that the milkweed fades, having served its purpose. Its leaves curl and shrivel against October’s chill. Its pods, now brown and burgeoning with fluff, provide a home for lady bugs and their tiny black-and-orange larvae, which crawl like microscopic alligators along the thin bark of the craggy pod. 
And then it happens, one by one the pods explode, their puffball seedlings strewn in clusters, some clinging to their pods, waiting for the right motivation; others catching the first breeze that comes along, floating along until the puff-borne seed is plucked from the air by tiny fingers that know a good wish-puff when they see it. 
Some will be eaten by the birds; others will rot on fallow rock and stone. Those that find their way into the woods and weeds will wait for spring, to germinate and regenerate, and to beckon once again to the butterflies which will come back because they must. 

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