MossRehab

Sachs Conservatory Becomes a Haven for Endangered Monarch Butterflies

By on 09/18/2017

Horticultural Therapist Abby Jaroslow, HTR, CH, remembers when a large monarch butterfly first appeared in the outdoor garden at MossRehab’s Alice and Herbert Sachs Therapeutic Conservatory.

“This one hung around several days, which was very cool,” she says. “There were several times when we were out in the garden when it was flying around people.”

Other monarchs, with their speckled orange-red wings, visited the garden at that time, but the big one really made itself at home, Jaroslow recalls. “There was one patient in particular that had been here quite a while, and she had spent a lot of time in the greenhouse. She was back for outpatient therapy and she brought her family through to see the greenhouse. We were standing outside, and the monarch came and flew around her head several times, and then flew around her sister’s head a few times, and then flew around me a couple of times. It was really exciting.”

Jaroslow didn’t know it at the time, but that visit would fulfill a long-held desire to bring monarchs, which are endangered, back to the garden on a regular—and, she hopes annual—basis.

Monarch Butterflies Have Visited Before

Butterflies, along with birds, bees and other pollinators, have visited the garden since its inception in April 2014. Conservatory staff have been growing plants known to attract those colorful flying visitors for three years. Monarchs have visited, along with other butterflies, such as painted ladies, blue swallowtails and tiny skippers.

What made this visit different was the discovery of about a dozen monarch caterpillars on some milkweed plants. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed because it’s the caterpillars’ food of choice. These caterpillars made quite a feast of the milkweed leaves, growing quite large very quickly.

After that, Jaroslow recalls, she and garden visitors noticed five bright lime green chrysalises hanging in secluded places, on plants near the milkweed.  The chrysalis is the pupa stage, between larva (caterpillar) and adult (butterfly) when the caterpillar is encased in a protective case called cocoon.   “We watched the chrysalises every day,” she says. “One morning I came in and I could tell the biggest one had emerged from the chrysalis. I could tell by the way it was sitting there not moving. When they first come out, they’re kind of crumpled. Then gravity sort of lets their wings straighten out, so they’ll just hang there for several hours. Then they’ll start flapping their wings to dry them, but they really can’t take off for a while. So I was able to watch that process and then I figured the rest of them were going to open soon.”

An Opportunity for Horticultural Therapy

Ultimately, monarch butterflies emerged from four of the five chrysalises.

After about a week, all of the monarchs were gone, presumably winging their way south to warm, sunny Mexico, where they hibernate over the winter. But if all goes well, Jaroslow hopes, the monarchs will return to the Sachs garden in the spring and summer, drawn by a ready supply of milkweed and nectar. In fact, because of its favorable resources for monarchs, the garden has been designated a Monarch Waystation by a conservation organization called Monarch Watch.

As beautiful as monarch butterflies are, for the purposes of horticultural therapy, there’s a lot more to it than how they look fluttering through the Sachs garden.

“This year, it was really more about education,” Jaroslow says. The presence of butterflies, visibly going through their life cycle, offered opportunities for education and therapy. “When patients were out here with their families, I would show the caterpillars and chrysalises to them, and we would discuss it. So there’s the cognitive therapy that comes from that, being able to talk about the sequence and looking at the different life stages. This time, it wasn’t really formal, just a matter of having something in nature to be able to talk about that brings a person present and focused.”

More than that, watching beautiful monarch butterflies emerge from their cocoons and take wing offers an opportunity for hopeful reflection.

“There are so many metaphors that you can use with butterflies,” Jaroslow says. “There are the developing stages of growth and then the transformation. There’s a metamorphosis from one stage of development to another, and you can talk about that as a metaphor for somebody who’s going through a change in their life. And for a patient who’s here in the hospital, there’s always something to mark time and look forward to. It’s always a positive thing.”

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