A migration of unusually large "monarchs" will flutter through Gamble Garden next week. As part of the garden's inaugural Monarch Festival, a parade of children wearing monarch crowns and waving wands will traverse the garden paths in a colorful display meant to emulate the fall migration of monarch butterflies.
Gamble Garden is building on its free Second Saturday program aimed at young families, dedicating the October edition to the Monarch Festival on Oct. 12. The event will educate visitors about efforts to shore up the dwindling numbers of monarchs and what individuals can do to help monarchs and other pollinators.
The Monarch Festival will have plenty of activities with family appeal, including the chance to make monarch life-cycle crowns (to wear later in the parade), storytelling, arts and crafts, games and self-guided tours of Gamble Garden's native and pollinator beds.
"We want to make learning about monarchs as enjoyable as possible," said Sarah Cornwell, Gamble Garden's executive director.
Cornwell said that in addition to building upon the garden's Second Saturday programming, the festival was inspired by a long-term partnership with the Garden Club of Palo Alto.
"One of their members, Eleanor Laney, has been a real advocate in this area for several years now. We connected and wanted to create a festival to honor monarchs. We wanted to have it in October because that is the migration period of the monarchs in the Bay Area. We thought it was the best time of year to highlight their plight, especially to young people, and their decline," Cornwell said.
The Garden Club of Palo Alto has maintained a monarch conservation project for the last four years. Its official title is Monarch Migration Revival Project but it's more colloquially known as the Monarch Mamas.
"The whole monarch population has diminished 90% since the 1990s, but the Western population is particularly depleted, so our project is to try to bring awareness to people about how important what they do in their garden is, how it will affect saving this iconic species," said Eleanor Laney, a Monarch Mamas founder.
The project aims to educate local residents about the role they can play in saving monarchs, in particular by planting milkweed, which is essential for monarchs' survival. The club has so far propagated over 1,000 native milkweed plants and distributed them to Bay Area residents, with the hope of creating a monarch-friendly area that stretches from San Francisco to San Jose.
"If you don't have milkweed, you don't have monarchs. It's what's called the host plant. In the case of the monarch butterfly, she will only lay her eggs on the milkweed. When those eggs become caterpillars, those caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves," Laney said.
At the festival, Laney will also be giving one of three talks about pollinators in the garden's carriage house. Though the talks will offer the grownups plenty of food for thought, there will be aspects with appeal for younger visitors, too. Laney's talk will include the chance to see live monarchs, caterpillars and eggs.
"My talk is more about the life cycle, the migration. ... We'll be talking about how they have mandibles to eat the leaves but then when they become a butterfly, they have proboscis to suck up the nectar and that's why the pollinator plants that have nectar are important for the adult butterflies. We'll talk about why the numbers are going down and what they can do in their garden," Laney said.
Festival visitors can see native milkweed — and possibly the monarchs it attracts — in several spots at Gamble Garden, including in a new pollinator garden planted last December. Richard Hayden, garden director for Gamble Garden, said that other ways to help monarchs include planting flowers that provide nectar. Although milkweed is the monarch's only host plant, they rely on other plants for food.
"Plants like verbena, also coyote mint, yarrow — because it's a big wide, flat flower, is a great butterfly plant because they have a landing pad — asters are great, and then also our native sages are really wonderful," he said.
He also pointed out the importance of planting flowers that bloom at different times, giving monarchs food sources from when they typically appear in mid-spring until they migrate in the fall.
Hayden noted that many practices that help monarchs, such as avoiding pesticides, make a big difference for many other important insects too.
"Monarchs are the keystone, the bright, shiny wonderful charismatic species that we can all relate to. They get to be the ambassadors for all the important tiny little native wasps and bees that we don't necessarily notice but are just as important," Hayden said
Visitors to the festival will receive a native milkweed plant, propagated with the help of horticultural students at Foothill College, and a sign for their front yard, marking it as monarch-friendly.
"Hopefully this will attract the interest of their neighbors and start a conversation about what they're doing," Cornwell said.
Starting that conversation, and keeping it going, from neighbor to neighbor, is how something small grows, spreads and gets its wings.
"What we're finding, as our natural areas shrink, our own backyards can become the connective refreshment areas for all these migrating butterflies. (People may think) 'I'm just planting one little yard, it's not enough. But then maybe you can let your neighbors know about monarchs and milkweed and the pollinator plants they need," Hayden said. "It's also a great way to build community. By planting our yards thinking about monarchs and other butterflies and pollinators, we can make a difference, we can get to some sort of critical mass. It'll be a great way to connect all these different wild areas and hopefully restore the habitat that they need."
If you're interested
The Monarch Festival takes place Oct. 12, 9 a.m. to noon at Gamble Garden, 1431 Waverley St, Palo Alto. Admission is free, but registration is required. Register at gamblegarden.org/event/monarch-festival-2019/