I’ve always been enchanted by Monarch butterflies. I still have the Monarch butterflies I captured and mounted in my butterfly collection when I was about ten. (Back then butterflies were everywhere and the world seemed abundant and Earth Day didn’t exist. What seems like an ecological travesty now was a simple hobby back in the early 1960s.) There’s something about the bold, rich orange of the wings with thick-black lines outlining the wings and veins of the wing and the amber-colored spots on a backdrop of black around the edges of the wings that has always intrigued me.
While young, I read about the mystery of the unknown wintering over spot for the Monarchs that flutter south into Mexico for their winter respite. In St. Louis, MO at age 12, I had the joy of seeing a shrub where hundreds of Monarchs gathered for the night—huddled together in the chill of the early fall night. I thought I had reached butterfly nirvana.
Twenty years later, I traveled away from my little mountain top down to the coast near Big Sur, California. There, in a secluded eucalyptus grove was, for me, the holy grail of Monarchs. Instead of fleeing south for a winter in warm Mexico, Sierra Mountain monarchs also flock to warm protected groves of trees near the Pacific ocean’s edge. While the native cypress was historically their natural habitat, the eucalyptus has superceded the cypress as the preferred habitat. In this special place, both the cypress and eucalyptus grow nearby and the Monarchs alight by the tens of thousands along the bark of eucalyptus trees. While only hundreds gather among the cypresses refuge.
With the introduction of the Australian eucalyptus and other exotic plants there are now many sweet treats to be found among this floral island of cultivated landscape. There is one particular eucalyptus in a nearby open lawn that doesn't spread into a dense thicket like the most common eucalyptus—the blue gum eucalyptus. Like all eucalyptus’s, it blooms in the mid- to late-winter. This particular specimen has flashy orange-red blossoms that flower with great abundance. Those Monarch’s warmed by the sun make their circuitous flight to sup on the sweet nectar of this tree. The flowers providing a dazzling backdrop in comparison to the more muted colors of the Monarchs.
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