Tulsans ensure our butterflies and bees thrive.
Black swallowtail on golden crownbeard
The bad news? Our nation’s butterfly and bee populations are on the decline. The good news? Tulsans are making their mark by planting gardens that offer host plants for pollinators to lay their eggs, as well as plentiful nectar resources that ultimately promote the pollinator population.
At home with butterflies
When now-retired teacher Sandy Schwinn found her first caterpillar on a honeyvine in her garden 36 years ago, she knew she had caught the butterfly bug.
“I brought the caterpillar in on the vine with my young kids, and we raised it in a canning jar,” Schwinn says. “Once we saw that it turned out to become a monarch butterfly, I became obsessed with figuring out which butterfly species were attracted to laying their eggs on which host plants.”
Schwinn’s next discovery was on a parsley plant: a caterpillar that this time developed into a black swallowtail butterfly. She actively started planting the varieties she knew attracted pollinators, especially the endangered monarch.
To attract monarch butterflies to lay their eggs, Schwinn says the milkweed plant is king. Milkweed is easy to grow and can be found at local farmers’ markets. To encourage black swallowtail butterflies to lay eggs, Schwinn found that planting dill, parsley and fennel are safe bets.
Schwinn is one of Tulsa’s resident pollinator enthusiasts. She has lived at her current residence in Broken Arrow for 12 years, which boasts a 400-square-foot pollinator garden that bears certification as an official monarch waystation.
Over the years, Schwinn has carefully documented 88 species of butterflies that have landed in her garden. Her space isn’t exclusive to butterflies; she sees diverse pollinators, including wild bees, bumblebees, hummingbirds, praying mantises and dragonflies that coexist alongside the occasional garden toad.
As the monarch butterfly population became increasingly endangered, Schwinn dedicated herself to advocating for the conservation of the species. Most recently, Schwinn was named an official conservation specialist for Monarch Watch.
She assists schools, homeowners, churches and local businesses with their efforts to meet the criteria to become official monarch waystations. She also encourages even the most inexperienced gardener to give it a try.
“It’s easy to get started with just a few plants,” she says. “Plant milkweed, nectar plants and a handful of herbs — and beware that you’ll be smitten with butterflies and want to do more and more.”
Although it’s easy enough to get started attracting pollinators, developing a pollinator garden does come with challenges. Schwinn warns against becoming disillusioned or discouraged by oleander (yellow) aphids, a common byproduct of having thriving milkweed plants.
“When aphids are on your plants, obviously they look like they’re dying, and most people want their plants to look perfect all the time,” Schwinn says. “But if you wait long enough and let the plants go ahead and get horrible looking, natural predators like ladybugs and lacewings will show up on the scene and take care of the problem. Nature has a delicate balance built in — but you have to be patient.”
Of course, Schwinn also touts the emotional benefits of having a pollinator garden at home — not just the environmental ones.
“When you can walk out of your back door and have a yard full of butterflies, any day can become better,” Schwinn promises.
Garden of hope
Crossroads Clubhouse, a dedicated safe space for adults diagnosed with mental illness, has brought the “farm-to-table” concept to life at its midtown Tulsa facility.
Crossroads is a nonprofit agency that offers employment, education, housing and food assistance to its members. In 2009, a staff-led effort to bolster member opportunities for social interaction turned an empty office lot behind the clubhouse into a “Garden of Hope.” Members and volunteers tend to the garden year-round and grow fresh vegetables and fruits that they then turn into in-house meals. The garden is a National Wildlife Federation certified wildlife habitat, as well as a certified monarch waystation.
Master Gardener Joan Crager has worked with the garden since 2013, making sure the Crossroads gardening space was giving back to the environment by encouraging pollinators to lay their eggs on host plants and fill up on the plants’ sweet nectar.
“If we can’t use it in the kitchen for meals, and it’s not a host plant for a butterfly or another pollinator, then we don’t have room for it,” Crager says. “Our plants have a purpose.”
The Crossroads garden touts a 100 percent organic gardening process and also uses environmentally friendly rain barrels and butterfly boxes.
Crossroads has championed the use of both hot and cold composting, even winning the 2013 “Golden Shovel” award at a local composting contest. Bill Leighty, a member of Crossroads, takes great pride in volunteering to manage the cold composting process in the garden and touts its mental health benefits.
“This garden means a lot to me, therapeutically,” he says. “I love to see how things decay, and then see that decay bring other things to life. Some people come to Crossroads depressed and anxious with uncertain futures; they may be unemployed and without family support. Coming to work in the garden, being around sunlight and seeing the butterflies just helps people’s souls.”
Along with its own produce, the facility also receives plentiful donations from the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, so any fruits and vegetables that aren’t suitable to eat or are about to spoil get put to good use in the composting pile. And though most gardeners focus on making their space flourish in the springtime, Crager puts specific efforts into a different season — fall.
In addition to planting plenty of pollinator host plants like milkweed, Crager also focuses on making sure that she has a balance of plants and flowers that burst at the seams with nectar. Monarch butterflies migrate from north of Mexico City to the Canadian border, where they stay in the summer. In the fall, when they migrate back to Mexico, Tulsa is about the halfway point in the long journey.
“In the fall, we take particular care to make sure we have flowers that will provide the nectar to fuel the butterflies in their journey back to Mexico,” Crager says. “Lantanas are a great nectar plant for butterflies, but Black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, catmint and butterfly bush also are great options.”
Whether prepping the garden for spring, or seeing the nectar plants through to the fall, the Crossroads Clubhouse garden is making a consistent impact on the environment and on its members.
“Work is an element of the recovery process,” says member Sheree Allen. “Working in the garden and working with your own hands is huge. It quiets your mind. It helps you focus on something other than your own problems. It brings you outside of yourself.”
Attached to Eisenhower International, a public language-immersion elementary school, is the “Life Lab” — an innovative, creative, imaginative space for children to learn and play.
A certified monarch waystation, the Life Lab was created in 2015 as a dedicated pollinator garden, offering teachers the ability to take learning outside of the classroom.
Laura Golden Shannon, a parent volunteer, spearheaded the project, which was funded by the PTA, students, parents and community partners.
The garden, bursting with plants from passion vine to milkweed to vitex trees, is community collaboration exemplified.
Girl Scout Troup 465 donated ladybugs and birdfeeders to the cause while Monarch Watch recently provided a grant for milkweed plants. A local Eagle Scout troop built a native bee habitat and the special “Butterfly Chalet,” a protected structure where kids can observe the entire life cycle of a butterfly while it is safeguarded. A parent donated materials for shade sails, keeping the garden cool for students, and volunteers installed a rain barrel irrigation system. Carl Szafranski of Szafranski Landscape Architecture LLC designed the garden pro bono.
Although the Life Lab has seen a huge surge in pollinators since its inception, the benefits of the project aren’t just environmental. Many of Eisenhower’s teachers utilize the Life Lab for lessons in math, science, art and other subject curricula, all of which are developed in English, Spanish and French.
“This generation of students, families and teachers at Eisenhower planted these plants themselves,” Shannon says. “They knew this space when it was just a field, so they’ve truly gotten to see their plants grow up and see the fruits of their labor. They’re invested. They’re committed. It teaches them skills inside the classroom, but, more importantly, life lessons outside the classroom.”
Shannon’s vision for the Life Lab is to see it integrated into every classroom at Eisenhower as the garden continues to grow and expand with endless learning opportunities.
“Their brains just light up when they enter the Life Lab,” says first-grade teacher Gilda García. “Kids sit by the plants and count the caterpillars. We do math projects where they chart how many bees and butterflies they see.
“We do science projects to learn the life cycles of plants and animals. It helps their critical thinking and observation skills. We do art projects. And sometimes, it’s just a nice place for the students to be outside.”
Third-grade teacher Cesar García Morales agrees. “Since this is an immersion program, I teach everything in Spanish, so kids can get lost in the classroom sometimes because of the language barrier. But with the Life Lab, nothing is lost because they are actually living what I am teaching.”
The student benefits of the Life Lab directly align with the school’s mission and values.
“The best part about the Life Lab is that it enriches our mission to make students into global citizens,” says Principal Connie Horner. “They learn about extinction, about finite resources and about how the choices they make affect the environment. They learn global responsibility and about politics and smart decision-making. They are quite literally learning from the ground up.”
The joy and ownership the students feel for the Life Lab is easy to see.
“I’m so connected with the outdoors, and with the Life Lab, spiritually. It’s kind of like my sanctuary,” says 10-year-old fourth grader Kalliope Wilcox. “I like to take new students to the Life Lab and give them a tour. I love to see the smiles on their faces. It has had a huge impact on me, and now I even like to garden at home.”
The buzz off
Insects like bees and butterflies are the most common species of pollinators and are crucial to the production of most fruits, nuts and berries in our ecosystem.
Over 150 U.S. food crops, like squash, tomatoes and apples, depend heavily on a healthy pollinator population. However, pollinators’ fragile nectar sources are deteriorating due to widespread use of herbicides in croplands, pastures and roadsides.
Developments like subdivisions, factories and shopping centers are consuming habitats for pollinators at an alarming rate of 6,000 acres per day, covering 2.2 million acres each year — the area of Delaware and Rhode Island put together, according to Monarch Watch. Scientists estimate that one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of animal pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, birds, bats, beetles and other insects.
Luckily, average at-home gardeners can do their part to help offset the loss of these habitats by planting pollinator-friendly host plants like milkweed, as well as other rich nectar sources (see p. 43).
By planting specific host plants that allow butterflies to lay their eggs and offering a variety of nectar-laden plants, bees, butterflies and other pollinators will flock to your home garden and continue nature’s precious cycle.
Many conservationists are taking their advocacy one step further to specifically tackle the endangerment of the monarch butterfly species, whose population has taken a nosedive.
Monarch Watch, a national organization dedicated to helping the species, offers a special program to certify official Monarch Waystation Habitats around the nation. Monarch waystations are dedicated places that provide the resources necessary for a monarch butterfly to produce successive generations and sustain their migration from Mexico to Canada.
Although monarch waystations are specific to the species, they typically also contain flowers and plants that attract multiple pollinators, from bees to beetles.
Interested in making your own pollinator garden? Here are four easy-to-grow, pollinator-friendly plants to start attracting the butterflies and the bees to your backyard.
Monarchs cannot survive without milkweed; their caterpillars only eat milkweed plants, and monarch butterflies need milkweed to lay their eggs. Milkweed also provides valuable nectar to a diverse group of pollinators. And, did we mention it produces beautiful flowers? Monarch Joint Venture recommends Green Antelopehorn milkweed and Zizotes milkweed for our region.
Who knew one of the most basic household herbs is actually a host plant to the beautiful black swallowtail butterfly? Planting parsley is a sure-fire way to find caterpillars on its bright green feathery foliage. Parsley is easily accessible at local nurseries or farmers’ markets. Other herbs that make a mark on the pollinator population include sage, cilantro, thyme and fennel.
Despite its namesake, all pollinators, and especially bees, love to stop by butterfly bush to sample its exotic and plentiful nectar. Plant butterfly bush in a vibrant color like cool-pink or purple to make it extra visible to bees. Looking for more nectar sources? Lantana, catmint and Black-eyed Susan also will do the trick.
Looking to cater to the bees? Vitex, or chaste trees, are your best bet. This large shrub blooms in long, upright clusters of light blue flowers and is a favorite for landscape plantings across the southern United States. Vitex trees are a tried-and-true choice for beekeepers and require plenty of space.
If you’re interested in taking your pollinator garden to the next level, simply visit monarchwatch.org and download an application to become a monarch waystation site. The requirements are basic: plant host plants for monarchs, add nectar plants and engage in sustainable management practices like amending the soil, eliminating the use of insecticides and watering regularly.
Illustrations by Morgan Welch and Georgia Brooks