Every story of migration starts with an epic journey of how beings get from one place to another. It can be an easy journey or a tough one depending on the obstacles that await them along the way. The symbolism of the monarch butterfly is personal to many because of its unique behavior and migratory route. Anyone in their path has the opportunity to be touched by these vibrant, transitory beings—even in urban environments if a place has been created for them to rest during their journey.
A sanctuary in the city
Lurie Garden is a four-season garden which means we get to see the garden in all its forms. There is always something blooming during the growing season. There are seed heads along with ornamental grasses for winter interest in the non-growing season, which entices people and wildlife alike to visit the garden year round.
One of the best attractions of the garden is the wildlife that makes the garden a home – whether it be permanent or temporary. Many insects, birds, and even bats use the garden as a stop along their migration route.
A favorite visitor that has Chicago along their migration path is the monarch butterfly. We love them because of their vibrant orange color, bold black outlines, and delicate white spots capture our attention. But also we like the symbolism of their journey – flying throughout most of North America without regard to man-made borders. Monarch butterflies are a phenomenon because they fly along the same two-way migratory route between Mexico and Canada each year – they are the only known butterflies to do this, while other butterflies can adapt to colder conditions. They fly into Lurie Garden in search of food, shelter, and a place to lay eggs.
Monarchs and milkweed – a special relationship
Monarch butterflies have a unique relationship with a plant commonly called milkweed. Not only are their eggs laid solely on this plant but the monarch caterpillar feeds on it despite the poisonous nature of this plant.
Milkweed contains cardenolides (cardiac glycosides) that can be toxic to humans and other wildlife but the monarch caterpillar can eat it without being harmed. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, a science-based environmental organization from Vancouver, Canada, “they store this poison throughout their lives, which makes them toxic to many, but not all, predators.” These predators have learned that the monarch’s unique bright orange wings with black veins and white spots signals danger.
Unfortunately, even with this powerful protection, the monarch population is in decline. Their unique defense against predators still leaves them vulnerable to pesticides, herbicides, pollution, storms, parasites, disease or careless development and agriculture that destroys their habitat and removes the milkweed that is so vital to their survival. With so many threats, it is no wonder why the monarch population has been decreasing over time.
A multi-generational journey
The monarch butterflies that leave Mexico in the spring are not the same butterflies that return in the fall. During the migration, the monarch will produce up to four generations with each generation continuing their parent’s journey. Usually, the ones that are seen in the Chicago area in the spring tend to be 2nd generation butterflies and we see the 4th generation butterflies in the late summer/early fall.
Each of the generation’s lifespan is different. The generation that visits Lurie Garden in the early growing season tends to only live about 4 to 6 weeks, as they are focusing most of their energy on mating and laying eggs. The fourth and final generation is called the “super generation”. These monarchs live 10x longer than the other 3 generations. These “super monarchs” hatch in late summer or fall and journey all the way to the Oyamel Forest in Michoacán, Mexico, where they hibernate during the winter. In the spring these same butterflies begin the migration north.
Although all the butterflies carry the DNA to make this journey, according to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the decreasing of day length and temperatures, along with aging milkweed and other nectar sources triggers the birth of the super-generation and the final stretch of their epic migration. They conserve most of their energy by storing fat in both their caterpillar and butterfly life stages and do not mate or lay eggs until the spring.
How they make this journey and know to migrate to a place they have never been is a mystery. Over the years scientists have noticed that they ride on thermal air currents, sometimes flying a mile high!
A return to their origin place: Monarchs and Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
As the monarchs finish their long journey to Mexico in the fall, they arrive at the forests of Michoacán, Mexico, around the end of October. Masses are often flying over area towns on Dia de lo Muertos. Local people have long believed that monarchs are the returning spirits of their deceased ancestors mysteriously arriving every year at the same time.
In Aztec tradition, they believed that souls of the departed would always return as butterflies and hummingbirds. Children in these towns are taught to set out water, cempasuchil (wild marigold), and sweets to welcome the monarchs because they are tired and thirsty from their long journey.
Dia de Los Muertos
Dia de Los Muertos is a holiday celebrated in Mexico, (as well as other parts in the Americas), for several days that commemorate the deceased. Participants create altars and decorate cemeteries with their relatives’ favorite foods, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and flowers.
This celebration dates back to Aztec and other local tribes throughout Mexico, which was then syncretized with All Saints Day and All Souls Day when colonized by the Spanish. They believe that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31st and the spirits of children are allowed to reunite with their families. On November 2nd, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities prepared for them.
In Chicago, the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) lets you experience something similar. They establish a Dia de Los Muertos exhibit each year that commemorates deceased local Chicagoans, by creating beautiful altars for them. This brings a little bit of Mexican tradition to the ‘Windy City’.
The monarch butterfly is always shown in artwork about Day of the Dead, specifically by artists whose families are from Michoacán, Mexico. Throughout the NMMA you often see monarch imagery used in several art pieces linking the migration of Mexican people to the migration of monarch butterflies. The image of the butterfly has been revolutionized. It has become the symbol of immigrants in the U.S. who wished to have the ability to fly over borders without having the burden of immigration laws or man-made restrictions.
Helping the monarchs
As mentioned before, the monarch butterflies have been on the decline mostly due to loss of habitat and pesticide use. Many organizations have been working to reestablish their habitat before it’s too late. Organizations like Monarch Watch, Journey North, and North American Butterfly Association (NABA) work to influence people to protect these wonderful creatures and even teach individuals how to tag and track monarchs on their journey for further research.
The University of Minnesota Monarch Lab provides resources and workshops to engage teachers in the United States and encourage them to include citizen science projects into their curriculum. The U.S. Forest Service provides federal grants throughout several areas, including Chicago, to help fund school and community garden projects that create bird and pollinator sanctuaries. Most, if not all of these programs emphasize the importance of building a stronger cultural connection with these wonderful creatures.
3 ways you can help make your city a sanctuary for monarchs
Wherever you live, you can help monarch butterflies by:
- Helping establish wildlife corridors to enable the movement of migratory animals in areas populated by humans, where they can stop, eat and reproduce. Even planting milkweed in an alley helps! Lurie Garden’s Plant Sale at the beginning of June is a convenient place for city locals to buy milkweed.
- Getting involved with citizen science projects with organizations like Monarch Watch, Journey North, or NABA that help monitor monarch migratory routes.
- Support, encourage, and work with local green spaces to become a certified monarch garden or certified wildlife habitat.
Chicago as a monarch’s ‘Sanctuary City’
Lurie Garden’s focus on being an ecologically friendly “four season garden” has helped establish a habitat for monarchs May through September when monarchs are in Chicago and the Midwest. Any garden – private or public – can become a Certified Monarch Garden and Certified Wildlife Habitat. Here is a list of plants that are in Lurie Garden that monarch butterflies prefer and can guide you to start your own monarch butterfly sanctuary:
- Culver’s root – Veronicastrum virginicum (Spring/Summer)
- Coneflowers – Echinacea (Spring/Summer)
- Joe Pye Weed – Eupatoriadelphus maculatus (Summer)
- Blazing star – Liatris (Summer)
- Bee balm – Monarda (Summer)
- Queen of the Prairie – Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ (Summer)
- Licorice Mint Hyssop – Agastache rupestri (Summer)
- Goldenrod – Solidago (Summer/Fall)
- Aster ‘October Skies’ – Aster (Fall)
- Tatarian aster – Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’ (Fall)
For more information:
- U.S Forest Service
- Monarch Watch
- North American Butterfly Association
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services
- The University of Minnesota Monarch Lab
- Garden With Wings
- The Xerces Society
- Journey North
- West Cook Wild Ones (wildlife corridors)
- The National Wildlife Federation (Certified Wildlife Habitat)