BTG Announces New Butterflies and Blooms Initiative

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True to its name, Chautauqua’s Bird, Tree & Garden Club honors birds in regular bird talks and purple martin chats. Trees are highlighted in nature walks and the Arboretum on the south end of the grounds. And gardens, of course, are everywhere.

But this season, BTG incorporated butterflies with the Monarch Moments series that culminates at 4:15 p.m. Monday in Smith Wilkes Hall. Supervisor of gardens and landscapes Betsy Burgeson will introduce the Smith Wilkes gardens as a certified monarch waystation, the first of many BTG hopes to certify though its new Butterflies and Blooms initiative set to replace the biennial Chautauqua in Bloom garden competition.

Announced at Friday’s BTG Life Member Luncheon, Butterflies and Blooms builds off this season’s Monarch Moment programming to sustain a conversation about habitat gardening. Rather than a competition, the new biennial program will help Chautauquans achieve the Monarch Watch certification Burgeson will explore today.

“Instead of it being about pretty, which is really what Chautauqua in Bloom was — having beautiful gardens — we’re really moving from that to creating these habitats,” said BTG board member Angela James.

Chautauqua in Bloom started as the project of Mina Miller Edison, daughter of Chautauqua co-founder Lewis Miller and widow of inventor Thomas Edison. The tradition eventually disappeared until it was revived in 1999 by BTG member Barbara Zuegel. The biennial competition put out a cattle call for Chautauqua gardens to be adjudicated by individuals from outside the grounds.

Only 41 homes participated in the 2015 Chautauqua in Bloom contest, reaching just a handful of Chautauquans. After Zuegel stepped away from her role, BTG brainstormed how to better engage the community.

BTG board member Lynda Acker said Butterflies and Blooms was partly inspired by the success of monarch life cycle demonstration July 8 in Lincoln Park. The BTG event drew hundreds of Chautauquans of every age who hung out with monarchs ranging from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. That connection, she said, can help more people realize the plight of the monarch, which has seen a 90 percent population decline over the last two decades, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization based out of Tucson, Arizona.

“We don’t see them, but there’s a far greater ripple,” said Acker, a biologist by training. “We miss [monarchs], but so does everything else that preys on them or requires them in their own food web.”

That lifecycle demonstration will return as a permanent element of Butterflies and Blooms, along with other chances for people who aren’t expert gardeners to get involved. BTG will provide master gardeners to educate homeowners, and Burgeson said she will lead professional training on monarch best practices for hired gardeners working across the grounds. The ultimate goal is certify Chautauqua’s gardens at a national level through Monarch Watch, an educational nonprofit devoted to monarch restoration.

Burgeson said she’s working to make all of Chautauqua Institution a waystation, a community-wide certification that currently doesn’t exist. She may have to settle for 100 individual certified gardens across the grounds, she said, but the symbolism remains powerful.

“They have Tree City USA,” Burgeson said, referring to the Arbor Day Foundation’s community-wide certification for urban forestry. “Maybe we can become the first Butterfly City USA.”

Part of Burgeson’s message is how easy it is to become a certified waystation, which verifies a garden’s ability to support the full monarch lifecycle. At the highest level, that means planting milkweed, the monarch’s sole host plant, and providing nectar plants and shelter plants to support butterflies as they prepare for their cross-continent migration to central Mexico where they spend the winter.

To participate, gardeners prepare their waystation, apply for Monarch Watch certification and receive approval within four to six weeks.

All the fuss intends to reverse the monarch’s huge population decline, mostly due to habitat loss. Widespread use of herbicides practically eliminated the milkweed once sprinkled throughout fields, and development threatens milkweed as land is used for construction and aggressive mowing eliminates milkweed along highways and golf courses. Whereas monarch butterflies were once able to sustain their multi-thousand mile migration with periodic stops, they now lack the resources to breed and feed across portions of their range.

The waystation program intends to reintroduce butterfly habitat one garden at a time, mostly by planting native plants to provide the necessary nectar and shelter. As gardeners ask for them, Burgeson said nurseries increasingly label native plants, and demand for milkweed can be so high that suppliers have waiting lists.

“It’s a great sign that butterfly milkweed is sold out and you need to buy it a year in advance to make sure you have it next year,” she said. “That’s a sign that things are going ahead.”

Butterflies and Blooms will culminate in a ceremony recognizing all gardens that receive certification, which, according to Burgeson, could be far more than the 41 that participated in Chautauqua in Bloom 2015.

“Driving around, probably 80 percent, if not more, of the homes and gardens will already qualify,” she said.

Morgan Kinney

The author Morgan Kinney

Morgan Kinney is a Northwestern University journalism student who likes to explain things, particularly science. Read his Twitter thoughts @morgan_kinney.