Flowers are seen growing in the pollinator garden on Monday, July 26, 2021, at the Oak Park Public Library on Lake Street. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

At the request of the local environmental club, Earth Action Team, the Oak Park Village Board passed a proclamation Feb. 8 declaring 2021 the “year of the butterfly” to inspire the community to create healthy habitats for monarchs.

The Oak Park Public Library (OPPL) has joined the effort by planting two pollinator gardens on library premises to support monarch butterflies, whose numbers have decreased dramatically in recent years. 

“It’s important for us to provide natural habitats so we can keep our indigenous plants and animals,” said Dean Horkavy, children’s services assistant at OPPL. 

Horkavy spearheaded development of the library’s pollinator gardens, one of which is on the southeast corner of the Main Library, taking up about 500 feet, and the second on the south side of the Maze Branch, covering a little more than 200 feet. Both contain a variety of different native plants, including several different species of milkweed — the most important food source for monarchs.

A bee is seen flying around one of the flowers on Monday, July 26, 2021, at the pollinator garden at the Oak Park Public Library Maze Branch. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Monarch butterflies lay eggs on the milkweed leaves, which contain poison. Upon hatching, the monarch caterpillars eat the leaves and become poisonous to their predators. Adult butterflies also drink the nectar from the milkweed flowers.

“They could not exist without milkweed,” Horkavy said. 

The plants in the two library gardens were chosen by Horkavy’s friend, Oak Parker Doug Chien, who sits on the board of West Cook Wild Ones, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and supporting natural ecosystems through responsible landscaping. Purchased from Midwest Groundcovers LLC, the entire cost of the plants totaled about $960, paid for by OPPL.

With the help of some family members, Horkavy and Chien volunteered their time to plant the gardens on May 22. The plants haven’t yet reached full maturation, but all grow and require little in the way of maintenance because they are indigenous.

The monarch butterfly is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Its population has plummeted from 1.2 million in the 1990s to fewer than 2,000 in 2020 due to global warming, pesticides and development, according to the nonprofit organization Center for Biological Diversity.

“We’re an important area for the monarch butterfly,” said Horkavy.

Oak Park is well positioned to help the ailing monarch population. Milkweed is indigenous to the Corn Belt, which covers Illinois and several other Midwestern states, making the region an important pitstop in the butterfly’s multigenerational migration from Mexico to Canada. 

Flowers are seen growing in the pollinator garden on Monday, July 26, 2021, at the Oak Park Public Library Maze Branch. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

“They’re here probably in June in the Midwest; then they lay their eggs and keep moving on,” said Horkavy.

The region’s substantial agriculture industry has led to the decimation of wild milkweed, resulting in a dwindling habitat for butterflies. As part of its conservation efforts, OPPL intends to give willing residents packets of milkweed seeds to plant in their yards. 

“Maybe you start with one milkweed plant and just see how it goes,” said Horkavy. “Then your kids will get super-excited by the monarch butterfly that visits.”

The word “diversity” is common in conversations about Oak Park, used as a descriptor for the demographics of the village’s residents. But diversity also extends to Oak Park’s biological environment. Planting pollinator gardens, or even just milkweed, presents an opportunity to nurture a more diverse landscape, supporting a multitude of different native plant, insect and animal species.

“Gardens are like communities — diversity makes them healthier,” said Horkavy. “There’s always value in diversity.”

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