By STEVEN HOWELL
---- — MONTREAL — The Montreal Botanical Garden takes flight once again with “Butterflies Go Free,” its annual rite of spring.
This year’s edition, which is held indoors through Sunday, April 28, highlights the majestic monarch butterfly. Montreal Insectarium scientific interpreter Magali Gregoire invites visitors to create their own gardens for the monarchs.
“The monarch is a species that’s very popular in Quebec,” she said. “Many people are fascinated with it because of its extraordinary migration to Mexico.”
The monarch’s migration from Mexico to Canada is a staggering 2,500 miles. While the monarch population is not dwindling as a whole, Gregoire said, the numbers are declining in the Quebec region, which includes the North Country.
HELPING WITH HABITAT
“The population in eastern North America is declining due to a loss of habitat,” she said.
In order for monarchs to survive in our area, the insects need one plant in particular — milkweed, Gregoire said.
“And as the name suggests, humans consider the milkweed to be a weed. It grows along the highways — a place that gets mowed a lot, so we lose milkweed because of that.”
Gregoire said that this year’s goal is to offer a sensibility to the issue as well as provide an alternative.
“We want to let people know that this is happening, but it’s actually really easy to help the monarch,” she said.
Help comes in the form of planting some milkweed in your own garden.
“You can easily plant milkweed in your own backyard, and even if you don’t have a backyard, you can plant milkweed in pots on your balcony,” she said.
To create a small garden, a few important ingredients are necessary, Gregoire said.
First, plants rich in nectar — such as pentas or lantana — are needed.
“These will feed the adult monarchs and other butterflies as well,” she said.
Gregoire said butterflies have little “trunks” that they unroll to gather nectar inside flowers.
It’s also important to choose flowers that will flourish throughout the summer season.
“This way, you will have nectar for your butterflies from the beginning of summer to the end of October,” Gregoire said.
The next step is planting milkweed. This is for the younger monarch caterpillar.
“The monarch caterpillar will only feed on milkweed, nothing else,” she said.
Any milkweed species — tropical or natural-growing — is adequate.
“You won’t have to worry about it eating your other plants,” Gregoire said.
One other tip: No pesticides. Let Mother Nature take her course, Gregoire advised.
“A milkweed garden doesn’t take a lot of maintenance. There’s a natural balance, an equilibrium, that settles in where the natural predators will eat each other.”
If you don’t have a lot of space, a container works fine. Just make sure there’s one for nectar-style plants and one for the milkweed.
Many people have milkweed around their garden and don’t even know it, Gregoire said.
“It’s the plant that when you break the stem or the leaves, there’s a white liquid inside.”
The liquid is called latex, and it’s packed with chemical molecules.
“So it’s toxic for a lot of insects, but the monarch caterpillar resists those chemical molecules and accumulates them in its body,” she said.
The caterpillar, itself, will become toxic to other predators.
“And that will protect it,” she said.
The monarch’s bright colors and the caterpillar’s yellow and black stripes signify its toxicity.
“And that’s the warning that says: ‘I’m toxic. Don’t eat me,’” Gregoire said.
Ideally, a milkweed garden should be placed in a low-traffic, non-windy area.
“The monarch weighs less than a gram, so you don’t want it to spend too much energy for it to stay in one place,” Gregoire said.
Steven Howell is the author of Montreal Essential Guide, a Sutro Media iPhone travel app available at iTunes.com.IF YOU GO WHAT: "Butterflies Go Free." WHEN: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday, through April 28. WHERE: The Montreal Botanical Garden is at 4101 Sherbrooke St. E. ADMISSION: For non-Quebec residents, the cost is $18.75 for adults, $17.50 for seniors, $14 for students, $9.50 for youths 5 to 17 and $52.50 for a family of four. Municipal parking costs about $12 for the day. CONTACT: Call (514) 872-1400 or visit www.espacepourlavie.ca.