(Lots of photos in this post! Click the photos to enlarge!)
Milkweed is an invasive plant, one that can grow to five feet tall and then releases its seeds in a late summer snowstorm of burst pods. They spread and their roots grow deep. I know this because I used to pull them out every growing season, splattering milky white liquid, which is actually a poison.
Nature, though, is persistent.
The milkweed wasn’t something I planted, it just showed up. That kind of plant, the kind that volunteers itself into a manicured and planned flower bed, is a weed. Weed being a reductive term for a plant not wanted or valued, usually of vigorous growth. About a decade ago I learned that on milkweed is the only place a Monarch butterfly lays her eggs. And that is the only food her caterpillars will eat, rendering them poisonous to predators. Since then, I’ve always been careful to let the milkweed take over a corner of the flower bed, for Monarch butterflies heavy-with-egg.
Now every summer I search my milkweed for Monarch eggs. A female Monarch butterfly lays the tiny pencil-tip sized egg on the underside of milkweed leaves. Once you’ve seen it, it’s unmistakable.
Each season there are four generations of Monarchs; the first three generations live 2-6 weeks, long enough to create the next generation. The fourth generation lives up to 8 months, during which it migrates on a 2,500 mile journey to winter in Mexico, then migrates back again in the Spring.
Monarchs have had it rough in recent years. Habitat loss and other environmental pressures have dwindled their numbers. Places along their migration path across North America to Mexico used to teem with fantastical clouds of migrating monarchs. Even my backyard was a monarch breeding area, as I used to discover eggs to rear all summer long. Last year I found only one; this year, just one so far.
When I find one, I carefully snip the leaf from the stalk and carry it inside to a big glass jar for safekeeping. After a few days, the egg will hatch an eyelash-sized caterpillar that embarks on a voracious eating expedition. It is so tiny that often I am unsure if there is anything in the jar, until I spot the poppy seed-sized “caterpillar droppings.”
I keep adding fresh milkweed for several days until the caterpillar, now growing at an alarming rate, is eating three or four milkweed leaves a day (and leaving bigger poops!) Once the green, black, and yellow striped creature reaches the length and girth of my pinky finger, I know that it will soon seek out a place to enter the next phase.
The caterpillar then pitter patters to the top of the jar to anchor itself with spun silk, upside down. Then the caterpillar, seemingly exhausted, hangs like a ‘J’, in what must be a caterpillar lotus position.
And it waits to transform. After a day or so of hanging out, the ‘J’ caterpillar begins to shake and wiggle until something amazing happens: their skin splits down their back and is slowly shrugged off, revealing a pupae that will smooth out into a jade-colored temporary exoskeleton with gold accents. Actually seeing this process is at once horrifying and magnificent. What is it?! How can that be?! Inside this jewelry-like chrysalis is a goo of the stuff that is creation. In this state, whatever the caterpillar has become before it becomes a butterfly, it sleeps, for about a week, dreaming and changing.
Right now I have one slumbering jade and gold chrysalis. Soon, it will darken as the dye that paints the Monarch’s markings appears inside. The wing pattern is easy to see through the now-clear chrysalis. Emergence is imminent. The newborn monarch will force its way out head-first and wait for its wrinkled wings to dry and smooth to a feathery splendor.
Fully unfurled, wings pumping, body sleek, antennae straight, and proboscis coiling and uncoiling, it is yet another wonder that the whole butterfly actually fit inside the chrysalis. As long as the day is sunny and temperatures are above 70 degrees, the newborn butterfly will be ready to lift off soon after emergence. I never try to keep it. It was only to take care of for a little while, and my part is done. I offer my palm for a lift out; sometimes the butterfly hangs on for long minutes, sometimes it takes off right away.
Mysterious nature, how can I thank you enough for depositing this miracle literally on my (back) doorstep? I can thank you, at the very least, by sharing what I’ve learned:
Do my part.
Allow even weeds space grow.
Be a caretaker.
Keep being patient.
At the right time, let go.
Note: Some of this story is adapted from my July 2011 blog post, Metamorphosis.