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Just as migrating monarchs tend to light on milkweed plants to feed and grow, so did roughly 35 or so home gardeners land at Green Home Experts in Oak Park last month to learn about butterfly gardening. It was the inaugural meeting of the West Cook Chapter of Wild Ones, Native Plants, and Natural Landscapes.
Explaining all about where the butterflies have gone and how we can coax them back was Oak Park's Stephanie Walquist, a West Cook Wild Ones member and monitor with the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network at Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester.
"Many of us assume that butterflies are always going to be here, but that isn't true because of what we tend to do," explained Walquist, who recently helped with the installation of the new butterfly garden and wildlife habitat at Beye Elementary School. "The lack of butterflies, I definitely think, is related to pesticide use. So one of the important things to remember is that there should be no pesticides in the garden. At all. Absolutely none. Organic fertilizer is best."
Another factor in play is most homeowners' tendency to clear out fall debris; keeping a few piles of leaves and twigs intact would be better.
"So many butterflies over-winter, either as a chrysalis or as a caterpillar, so they are in the garden, wrapped up in the leaves. When we mulch leaves, we cut them up — the caterpillars and the chrysalises," she said.
Even so, Walquist has seen lots of beautiful butterflies in the area, though recently she has seen fewer monarchs feeding on milkweed plants than in years past, as their numbers have been plummeting.
Around here, though, you can also find Red Admiral butterflies, which migrate through the area in search of nettles and Pennsylvania Pellitory, a common weed that is a host plant for the caterpillars. Here also are American Lady caterpillars, feeding on Prairie Pussy Toes and Pearly Everlasting, two of its host plants, prior to its butterfly stage.
Question Mark butterflies, Walquist said, can be spotted feeding on the sap of trees, whereas its caterpillar will eat elm leaves, as well as hops vines.
"Violets are critical because they're a host plant for a host of Great-spangled Fritillaries we get," she noted. "They are a group of orange and black butterflies, which can be confused with monarchs. Those caterpillars over-winter here, so it's good to keep the garden intact, and not to do too much fall cleanup."
And don't forget those Tiger Swallowtail pupas, she added. They can be found over-wintering in a chrysalis attached to a tree or on a plant in your garden.
"Their chrysalis will look like a dried leaf, and the Tiger Swallowtail will come out in the spring when it warms up," said Walquist, who has been working with a variety of butterfly populations for about a decade now.
In the Outdoor Learning Center at Beye School, Walquist said, their aim was to attract more wildlife, including delicate winged things.
"Since I am so obsessed with butterflies in the garden, we put in a lot of nectar and host plants to attract a lot of butterflies and birds," she said. "We have things like Coneflowers, Liatris, Rudbeckia, native Geraniums, Spice bushes, Dogwood, Coreopsis, and various kinds of milkweed, as well as Pussy Toes to attract American Lady Butterflies."
Wild Ones forms local chapter
Peggy Wedoff of Oak Park said she came to the first meeting of West Cook Wild Ones to learn how she could do more in her landscape, where already she is growing a variety of edibles and raising a few monarchs.
Likewise, Oak Park urban farmer Rich Kordesh came out because he is interested in converting another patch of lawn into "a more dense kind of native grass and flower environment."
"I think Wild Ones coming here is a great idea, and I am going to join," said Kordesh, a board member of Sugar Beet Cooperative, a grass-roots, locally-sourced food movement in Oak Park. "It will give people the opportunity to get into the stream of information."
What he has learned from Walquist is "not to be in such a hurry, and not to make a [butterfly] garden overly neat," he said.
For Pamela Todd, starting a local chapter of Wild Ones (www.wildones.org) in Oak Park became a priority after reading Doug Tallamy's book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. In it, she said, he makes a convincing argument about the fact that there is an unbreakable link between native plant species and native wildlife; most native insects cannot, or will not, eat alien plants, and eventually that will affect absolutely everything.
"No bugs means no birds and on up the food chain," she observed. "Including native plants in a landscape also has a positive impact on sustainability in terms of water use, energy use, carbon sequestration, reduction of environmental toxins, etc." The award-winning author of The Blind Faith Hotel contends, "The loss of our native biodiversity is especially related to the catastrophic loss of pollinators, which can have such an impact on our food crops."
Launching the local chapter with Todd are Ginger Vanderveer, a local native gardener and member of the Park District of Oak Park's Greening Advisory Committee, and Marni Curtis, a professional gardener and restoration ecologist. For more information, or to join the local Wild Ones chapter, send query e-mails to
"There are already many people in this area who care deeply about the need to preserve biodiversity by gardening with native plants," Todd said. "By making simple changes in our own yards and reaching out to help our neighbors get started, we're working together to create a wildlife corridor that will be a model for other communities to follow."
The next Wild Ones meeting is at 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 25 at Good Earth Greenhouse, 7900 Madison St. in River Forest. The subject is: Monarch Watch.
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