The chrysalides of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) are some of nature’s most exquisite jewels. I recall these wonders, painted in jade green and ringed with gold, with the same wonder today as when I first saw them a decade ago.
My friend Chris cultivated common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in her gardens to help the monarch butterfly populate, and to support their companion pollinators. Every year she would cut a few stalks of milkweed with chrysalides attached and place them in a terrarium with branches. Not only did this help to ensure that some of the monarch pupa would survive to become butterflies, it also allowed her the opportunity to witness and marvel at this portion of the monarch life cycle, and to connect with the divine through this tiny aspect of creation.
I was fortunate that she chose to share this wonder of nature with me.
A few days after viewing the chrysalides, we discovered that the butterflies had hatched. They were not quite ready to fly; their wings had not completely deployed. The entire process, from hatching to wing deployment to flight, happens very quickly. We only got to see this moment by chance. The butterflies crawled along the sticks inside the terrarium. When I placed my hand nearby, one of them crawled onto my outstretched fingers, and I was awed and delighted as she moved around my hands and up my arm. Once her wings were dry and sturdy, she flew away. That is what she had been born to do.
In those moments, my mind was filled with thoughts about the process of change and renewal, and about the necessity of turning inward in order to achieve growth. I thought about the apparent speed of the transformation, which, in the measure of a butterfly’s life cycle, is not speedy at all. With that momentary touch of grace and ethereal beauty I had been in the presence of the divine.
In that instant of connection, I fell in love with the monarch butterfly. Intrigued by both the divine and scientific natures of their life cycle, I began some basic research about how to create space that would be beneficial to their existence. I learned that pollinator-supportive native plants with a variety of bloom times are necessary to provide the food monarchs need in order to reproduce and later migrate, and that milkweed is required, as it is the only food source for monarchs in their larval form. As a result of that research, my dream home plans eventually expanded to include the presence of pollinator gardens.
Years have passed since my first close encounter with a monarch, but I never let go of that part of my home ownership dream. When my husband and I purchased our home in 2019, I took the time to get to know the land and land spirits before making extensive garden plans. Our first spring and summer at Bear Path Cottage saw only roses and lavender planted, then multiple rounds of sunflowers, which were staggered from May through August to extend their blooming season into autumn. We planted the last round of sunflowers in the garden outside the front door, and those blooms were a vibrant mixture of red, yellow, and orange. I loved to place my nose close to those happy faces and inhale the citrusy scent.
One September day, my husband called to me from the living room. The front door was open, and from where he was sitting he had a clear view of the sunflowers in the front garden. His eagle eyes had spotted a single monarch butterfly taking a meal from the sticky-sweet flower heads. I went outside to get a closer look and was enchanted by the fluttering movements of such a magical creature. In the space of a single breath, that experience was transformed when my new friend flew around to the far side of the flowers and her wings were suddenly illuminated by sunlight. Stained glass windows had nothing on that natural beauty, and it was an affirmation of my dreams coming true.
A couple of weeks after the sunflower and monarch encounter, I was working in the yard, edging the Juneberry trees with river rocks. I adore the way it feels to physically connect to the good earth energy of Bear Path Cottage. There is a sense of grounding and peace, my cares absorbed by the earth beneath me. I pour energy into nurturing and nourishing the land, and in return she wraps her energy around me, helping me to heal and grow.
Taking my time placing each rock, letting myself be in those moments, I happened to notice several monarch butterflies cruising around the yard. Laying back on the grass, I watched them. There were more of them up high in the sky; little more than dots of color that would slowly float down to earth. By the time the sun began to set more than two dozen monarchs had visited the garden.
A quick online search reminded me that the annual migration of monarch butterflies takes them through this region, and it was likely that I was seeing strays from a much larger group flying at such an altitude as to not be visible with the naked eye. The migratory route for monarchs, which starts in Canada and ends in Mexico, crosses the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway. This migration makes the news every year, but I did not realize that the Swannanoa River Valley is part of the direct route. It is no surprise that the magical workings that brought me home to the cottage would put me in a place where my gardens can be a resting point or a nursery for monarchs during migration.
Grounded by the land and connected to the sky, in those hours watching the monarchs I once again felt a sense of affirmation. An acknowledgement and encouragement, even, from the land and land spirits to move forward with my plans to create a pollinator haven. Those kinds of messages seldom come with a flash and a bang, but there is no mistaking them. I am always grateful for their guidance. Over the past two decades environmental neglect has destroyed vital wildlife habitats and led to drastic declines in the monarch’s numbers. I am pleased to have the opportunity to be a part of the grass roots efforts to increase their population once again.
After receiving such encouragement, I went ahead with planning the cottage gardens. The first plans included sections of common milkweed, so in January of this year I planted seeds from a local seed company. Planting from seed rather than plant starts is a challenge. I am not an experienced gardener and am not always successful at distinguishing between intended plant and intrusive weed. However, trusting my familiarity with milkweed, and trusting the land spirits seemed the best way to move forward with this garden experiment.
A few weeks after the first planting, I received a package from Chris containing a jar filled with silky-white bearded seeds from her own milkweed harvest last year. What a happy and propitious gift, touched by the magics of someone for whom I have a deep and abiding love and who planted the seeds that grew into my dreams.
I carefully prepared a raised bed garden, digging out the grass, weeds, and turf below. Then I meticulously marked out rows and planted the seeds, some of which got away from me and drifted around the gardens. Amused by their determination to spread themselves around, I had no problem with the thought of milkweed randomly sprouting in various areas of the gardens. I noted the general locations to which the breeze had carried the seeds, hoping to be able to tell the difference between milkweed seedlings and rogue weeds.
By April, growth appeared in the first milkweed bed, and I was confident about my identification of those plants. Then seedlings appeared in the second bed, the one planted with seeds sent by my friend. There was growth only in the straight lines of the rows; it seemed no weeds had taken hold. However, the plants in the second bed were significantly different in appearance from the milkweed plants in the first bed. I thought perhaps my friend had sent seeds from a different variety of milkweed, so I began researching what type they might be.
Those plants I was certain were milkweed became tall and spindly. The unidentified plants, with their lobed leaves, grew no higher than 18 inches. Those mystery plants were not only in the raised bed planted with milkweed, they were in the other locations I had seen the floating seed land the day I planted. I was determined to puzzle my way through an identification. They quickly flowered with yellow blooms that did not even open all the way before the fluffy seeds disbursed, which seemed to happen overnight.
As a novice gardener I often take a wait and see approach, preferring to make decisions based on education rather than reaction. Although I began to suspect something was not quite right with the plants, I needed to know what they were before I pulled them all out of the ground.
I talked to the land spirits and the spirit of the cottage herself, asking for insight and assistance. I noticed a bit of a tug on my intuition, a sense of another presence in the gardens, but one that was always just out of sight and just beyond reach. The land spirits were deeply amused and respectful of this presence but would not communicate about it. I felt a strong but subtle push back and deemed it wise not to pursue the matter any further.
I did not cease my investigation of the suspect plants, however, and I eventually identified them as an annual weed of the daisy family, known as common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris). The name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word groundswelge, which means “earth-glutton” or “ground devourer.” I made this discovery while sitting in the garden. Reading the list of common names out loud as if they were a poem, I heard distant laughter. Groundsel. Ground devourer. Birdseed. Chickenweed. Common butterweed. Old Man in the Spring.
I had the overwhelming feeling that someone had decided to play a joke, whether it was a joke on me, or on the land spirits, or on the gardens, replacing the common milkweed with a common weed. Not knowing what it was, I had tended and cared for it, watering it, talking to it, encouraging it to grow, letting it live its life cycle from beginning to end. This was not the first time in my life that I had expended energy in the wrong direction.
I arrived at the cottage during the winter of my soul. I have used my relationship with the gardens and the spirits here as a means of working through the darkness and the cold of that winter. Despite the growth and progress around me, at times I have been uncertain that I would find my way and arrive once again at a spiritual springtime. Perhaps the one who played this joke had an intention beyond humor.
While pondering the situation with the groundsel, I was reminded of the life cycle of the monarch; that the entire process happens quickly, but that the apparent speed of transformation is not what it seems. I have often been impatient with my own healing and growth processes, and at times it seems odd to be spiritually moving into new space while my body is slowing down. Old (Wo)man in the Spring, indeed.
That night I walked the gardens, setting out treats as offerings to the land spirits. This is a regular part of my spiritual practice but for many reasons it held deeper meaning in those moments. I left the offerings at each direction, and in a few other places as well, walking a full circle around the edges of the property.
The next morning I pulled every bit of the groundsel from the gardens, thanking it for the work it had done and whatever benefit it had given the land and pollinators. After carrying two buckets full around to the north-west edge of the property and dumping them in the compost bin I moved to bid good morning to the recently planted hawthorn tree. When I did so I saw that many of the treats offered the night before were now in a pile beneath the hawthorn’s branches. “I dinnae ken what ye think,” another friend of mind would have said, “but I ken fine what this is.” Aye, I ken, and I ken enough not to say it out loud.
The common milkweed began growing in the raised bed two days after I pulled the groundsel, seemingly not at all affected by a delay of several months in the ground as seed. The plants in the other bed are already blooming and their heady scent fills the garden, summoning the monarchs to dine and to lay their eggs. The seasons continue, the cycles continue, the spiral dance moves ever on and on, even when it seems to one that the world has stopped turning.
This afternoon I caught a glimpse of the first monarch in the milkweed bed. Soon there may be those marvelously colored chrysalides. Even here, in this place surrounded by beauty and living in the presence of the others, my heart felt the fluttering touch of that grace and beauty, and I knew I had been in the presence of the divine yet again.