A Tidal-wave of Plants – All Hands on Deck to Save the Monarchs

Heather speaks to Angela while picking up Xerces Kits at the NRCS nursery facility in Lockeford, CA

In the early summer this year, Melinda Barrett, the Director of the Mariposa Resource Conservation District (RCD), had generously included my project in their grant request for the Xerces Society pollinator kits. Also included were kits for the County and UC Master Gardeners, both working on spots in town on the Mariposa Creek Parkway. To pick them up was the least I could do, so I volunteered. David and I made the nearly two hour trip to Lockeford on November 3. The nursery site was gorgeous, sitting along side the Mokelumne River. There seemed to be over a thousand plants waiting to make their way to projects all around the state. It was clear Xerces was making a monumental effort to get plants into the ground as rapidly as possible. I felt very honored and humbled to be one small part of this massive effort.

Deedee Soto (Xerces), Melinda Barrett (MCRCD), and I meet with Waylon Coats at the Sarah Priest Tribal Allotment land in Midpines, CA.

I was allocated six kits from the Xerces grant. While four kits would be used for Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu, two could be used for community projects. Our first community participant came from the local Tribe. Waylon Coats is a member of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation Tribal Council. His ancestors have lived along the Bear Creek in Midpines for thousands of years. When I discussed my project at the Council Meeting last Spring, as noted in a previous post, he was the first to volunteer his relation’s Tribal land for the project. Melinda, Deedee Soto (Xerces) and I paid a visit to Waylon to look at the site in mid October. He showed us a few options, but we chose the first site he thought would be good. It was gorgeous! Bear Creek was running. There were many pools of standing water, and a nearly dry spring that fed into the spot we chose. There were already butterfly plants in that area. In fact, as we spoke, a beautiful sulfur butterfly flitted from plant to plant in the dappled, peaceful section of creek we were exploring.

Waylon works with Native youth (He is very young himself.). He teaches them traditional practices, and this project was a perfect fit. The site had considerable invasive and overgrown species that needed to be cleared. He, and his youth group, planned to do the clearing work prior to me delivering the plants. I delivered the plants on Sunday 11/15, and the place was nearly ready to go. He had at least 18 relations there and ready to plant – not all youth. There were several adults too as well as little ones. So many indigenous communities are coming together to reclaim their knowledge and be change makers in healing the land. I know many butterflies will find their food and incubators, here, in this serene, protected place.

Planting Xerces Kits – a race against time

Heather plants the hedgerow kits early in the morning despite the continuing smoke of the Creek Fire.

The kits are comprised of nectar and milkweed plants designed for either drier areas (hedgerow) or moist creek areas (riparian). It was a strange growing year this year – probably mostly due to the smoke. The milkweeds started going dormant quicker than the Xerces team expected. What they have learned is that the milkweed transplants are much less successful after they go dormant. It was imperative that the milkweeds were put into the ground as soon as possible.

I picked up the plants on 11/3. My husband and I had made some of the holes prior to their arrival, but we did not get all of them done. The smoke has been difficult to work in. It limits my husband’s ability to work outside, in particular, due to his asthma. David is my primary hole digger. He is big and strong – and can get more hole digging work done so much quicker than I. Sadly, I was not able to have much of his time. Instead, I took the pickax and made an additional fifty holes over the next five days. [Yes, my back is still aching.] There are still about ten plants remaining to be planted in the riparian section – awaiting more fencing work to be complete in the next week.

We did receive a reprieve in the form of a small storm. This made digging holes much easier, not just from the moisture, but from the smoke being pushed out. Being able to breath is a huge plus when wielding a pickax. I prioritized the milkweeds from both types of kits. They were in the ground withing the first 48 hours. Next, I completed the hedgerows in time for the next storm. I had to be concerned about freeze as well. The temperatures dipped into the 20s here in Hornitos. Although the plants are on the covered patio, I did not take any chances. I placed a sheet over all the plants to keep them even warmer.

Below is a collage of images from planting both the hedgerow and riparian kits.

The hedgerow plants all received mesh baskets. At the creek, where gopher intrusion is much less, the milkweeds were planted directly into the ground. I placed downed branches over those plants that still had green sprouts to prevent cattle browsing.

Other Items of Note

Major shock! A gopher finds a way to access my raised bed and decimate unprotected plants.

My heart sunk when I found that a gopher had made it into my raised bed. I did not place any of the plants in mesh baskets inside the container, so they have become easy pickings. As of this writing, it got all five marigold plants, my one remaining woolly pod milkweed and a narrow leaf. I am nearly despondent about this turn of events. They were all so healthy. Some of these plants need to make it though so there are more mature milkweeds for the butterflies to choose from.

Alfalfa Sulfur butterfly on a sunflower

Fortunately, we continue to have blooms and butterflies continue to come. None of them are monarchs, but we recently had this green gossamer-winged beauty (photo above). The experts think this is an alfalfa sulfur butterfly.

Common Buckeye butterfly visitor

We also had this brown beauty (photo above) arrive a week ago. The photo is brown because this was the week the smoke came back with an AQI reading of over 140. I think this is a common buckeye. So gorgeous. We’ve also continued to have the cute little lilac butterflies (read the post before this for more info and images) and white sulfurs. I am really grateful that they continue to come here and find food.

I am finding more and more oak seedlings. Those that are in especially good places, like where there is not a living tree adjacent or the nearby tree is dead, I am covering with downed branches. This helps to protect the seedling from being grazed by the cattle. I now have about eight mounds of branches protecting ten seedlings.

The final item I would like to share is that I was asked to speak about this project at the California RCD state conference. I am really happy to do so, but very much hope it is of interest to the audience. I will not be providing a scientific presentation. Rather, it is more about my story of how this project came together and how it is progressing. I will try to keep it lively and not make folks fall asleep! If you are interested, here is a link to the presentation in PDF form.

Like our work to solve the COVID-19 pandemic, we are only able to be successful if we work together. Instead of a virus, our shared challenge is convention and in some aspects greed. We do not have to do things the same way we always did. Even those ways were changed from the way things were before then. Nothing is static. The choice we have is whether we embrace change in a way that brings greater health to all or a greater profit and lifestyle for a few. I would rather live in a place that is healthier and happier for all living things. I hope you would too.