Butterflies Take Flight in Laguna Beach Thanks to Habitat Gardens

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The migratory monarch butterfly was placed on the endangered species list Thursday by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Monarchs were once abundant, but habitat destruction and rising temperatures reduced their estimated numbers to a fraction of their population in the 1980s, scientists say.

Laguna Beach resident Laura Ford watches such a decline with concern.

Butterflies can be a symbol of regeneration with the metamorphosis they go through. When her grandmother died, Ford went to a local garden center to try to buy milkweed, the host plant of monarch butterflies.

There were none available. She then saw a caterpillar on the concrete and was inspired to source milkweed elsewhere.

Laura Ford looks through the Narrow-leaved Milkweed plants for Western Monarch Butterfly eggs as her husband Michael looks on.

(Kevin Chang / personal photographer)

“It was this caterpillar that went through the transformation and became a butterfly that encouraged me to start the nonprofit, seeing the process,” she said. “When I heard the species was in trouble, I realized I wanted to do something.”

Ford launched the nonprofit Pollinator Protection Fund. She and her husband Michael built a pollinator habitat garden in Heisler Park last September, using narrow-leaved milkweed and other native California plants.

In recent weeks, they’ve started another habitat garden at Bluebird Park in Laguna Beach, pulling out old ivy and building beauty into the roughly 700-square-foot space. They are also planning another garden for a steeper space at the back of the park.

The group has also recently set up educational panels. Now the Fords hope to find more volunteers as they work with other organizations to expand their project along the coast.

Western monarch butterflies breed west of the Rocky Mountains before migrating to the California coast to overwinter.

“Our goal is to keep it growing,” said Laguna Beach resident Pamela Knudsen, whom Ford recruited as secretary of the Pollinator Protection Fund. “Part of that is to produce a beautiful habitat for monarchs and other pollinators, but also to educate the general public about what’s going on.”

A hummingbird eats in the Western Monarch Butterfly Habitat Garden at Bluebird Park on Wednesday.

A hummingbird eats in the Western Monarch Butterfly Habitat Garden at Bluebird Park on Wednesday.

(Kevin Chang / personal photographer)

On a recent afternoon at Bluebird Park, the new garden seemed to be thriving. A pair of familiar black and orange monarch butterflies flew in formation, as did other butterfly species. A hummingbird buzzed before landing on a salvia greggii (Fall sage) plant.

“We had native bees come to Heisler, which is fantastic to see,” Laura Ford said. “It means we are doing our job properly. Monarchs lay their eggs. About two weeks ago we were there and saw a new monarch butterfly that had hatched and was drying out. It was the best feeling in the world because it’s like, ‘Everything we’ve worked on works.’ You know it creates a positive effect and a change.

Ford said she purchased most of the plants from Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, which specializes in native plants.

The Fords also planted bright yellow sundrop flowers, which are a favorite of bees, as well as California goldenrod, verbenas and other colorful plants. They recently teamed up with a national non-profit organization, the Monarch Joint Venturewhich aims to conserve the migration of the monarch butterfly.

“With a common and charismatic species like the monarch, we often come across people who just haven’t realized they’ve been declining for decades,” said Wendy Caldwell, executive director of the Monarch Joint Venture. “We are at this point where we have to do something very quickly.”

An educational sign is displayed in the Western Monarch Butterfly Habitat Garden at Bluebird Park in Laguna Beach.

An educational sign is displayed in the Western Monarch Butterfly Habitat Garden at Bluebird Park in Laguna Beach.

(Kevin Chang / personal photographer)

Caldwell said something as simple as a pot of milkweed on your porch can create a small habitat for endangered species.

“I’ve seen monarchs using milkweed in a crack in the sidewalk, so it’s not a species that requires a certain size or a certain type of habitat,” she said. “Really, monarchs are able to use many sizes and shapes of habitat. So these gardens, or the pot on your porch, are all important contributions to monarch habitat.

Bluebird Park’s garden took off almost as quickly as the giant metal rocket that sits just behind it, as part of the children’s play area.

Longtime Laguna Beach resident Lew Moss, who lives just up the street, said the garden added a lot to the park.

“We’re so proud of what they do,” Moss said. ” This is delicious. We also love butterflies, so what they do is just amazing.

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