Local butterfly gardens entertain, relieve stress

Douglas Rojas

Monarch butterflies will visit the Twin Cities in June, after a long journey back from Texas and Mexico where every year they take refuge for the winter.
And many of these colorful monarchs will find home near the University — in butterfly gardens aimed specifically at attracting them to the Twin Cities.
“It’s just so relaxing to sit down and watch them (butterflies),” said Mary Maguire, a horticulturist who graduated from the University in 1974. She has butterfly gardens in her front and back yards.
“I’ve noticed when I come home from a stressful day, if I can just spend a few minutes as I get out of the garage, sit there and watch them, I just calm down,” said Maguire, who is a coordinator with the Minneapolis Park and Recreational Board.
Butterfly gardening restores natural habitats for the insects with native species of plants. The plants provide places to live, and food in order to attract as many butterfly varieties as possible. In their adult stage, butterflies stay in the gardens and reproduce for a couple of generations until the winter season comes, and then they migrate to warmer areas.
A butterfly’s life span, depending on the type of butterfly, can last anywhere from one to nine months. The longer-lived generations exist in warmer climates like those found in South America.
Butterflies are attracted to these habitats by different colors and flowers. Butterfly gardens should have a large variety of plants that not only provide nectar and pollen but also shelter for the insects to lay their eggs and eat. Plants should be staggered so that they bloom at different times during the season. This should guarantee that the butterflies will stay in the garden longer.
Developing a garden can be as affordable or expensive as the gardener chooses. A garden can have up to 24 varieties of plants in it, with a good mix of annuals and perennials. A package of seeds costs about $1.50 or a more mature plant can cost a few dollars.
“It’s really cheap entertainment,” Maguire said.
Because of urban development and expansion of cities, butterflies are now rarely seen in metropolitan areas. Although for many years, gardeners were aware of the kind of plants different species of butterflies would prefer for their food, it was not until 20 years ago that butterfly gardening appeared as a response to the decrease of natural habitats, said Vera Krischik, an assistant professor in entomology at the University and author of a Minnesota Extension Service bulletin about butterfly gardening.
“There is hardly any natural habitat left except for state parks and federal parks,” Krischik said. “You would like butterflies in your backyard in Minneapolis, but the next population is up in Itasca.”
Krischik is the director of the Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability at the University, a center that promotes initiatives to improve and restore urban landscapes. The center’s goal is to educate landscape managers and urban residents about ways to take better care of the environment by practicing sustainable management that focuses on low inputs of labor and chemicals.
“What CUES is trying to do is be an outlet that people can come in to and find the information they need,” she said.
Sustainable management is not only a way to restore the environment. It also encourages bird population and plant diversity. Butterfly gardening is part of the center’s effort to promote sustainable management of urban landscapes.
The center was founded in 1995 and works with participants from different colleges on campus such as the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, and the College of Biological Sciences. Since its foundation, the center has been promoting conferences, workshops and symposiums.
Part of the purpose behind sustainable management is to create a close link between people and the landscape. Americans are still tied to the idea of having big lawns as part of their houses, Krischik said. However, people should start moving into landscapes that require less pesticides and are more environmentally friendly.
“What we are really trying to do is to get people away from these high maintenance landscapes,” Krischik said. She also said the center suggests people should get outside more and spend time with neighbors and surrounding wildlife.
Maguire says she receives personal benefit from giving food to the butterflies. They have a relaxing effect on her life, and that gives her considerable satisfaction — especially in our current society where increased technology and busy work schedules are making life more stressful for people. She said butterfly gardens are easy and accessible ways to pass time and relieve stress.
“I think we need more and more of those things to happen as our lifestyles get more stretched out,” Maguire said.