ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – What started out as a community project launched by two nature lovers is now successfully helping the migration of the endangered Monarch butterfly, but has also become an exciting experiment for brownies and girl scouts of Troops 60173 and 60821 as well as at least three other scout troops, thanks to the innovation and hard work of their leaders.
Meet Ken Grasso, retired elementary school educator of 31 years, Ellen O’Dwyer, member of the Atlantic Highlands Garden Club, a lady who charges full ahead when she’s on a mission, Melissa Festa and Kelly Wahl, girl scout leaders of troops who knew their scouts love doing things outside and enjoy any opportunity to help the community.
PHOTO: Shows a tiny white egg on a milkweed leaf, and also a tiny caterpillar – next to a ruler
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Grasso, who also chairs on the Shade Tree Commission and is on the Friends of the Library in the borough, attended a three-day teachers workshop 18 years ago presented by the Monarch Teacher Network. He was teaching third grade at the Deane-Porter School in Rumson, and after his workshop, the school added the butterfly life cycle to its curriculum. Since then, Grasso has made numerous trips to Mexico, his school has hosted a teacher from a butterflies’ overwintering site in Mexico, as well as a Monarch workshop, and started a milkweed garden at school. To say he grew immersed in butterfly protection and migration puts it mildly, but Grasso also liked how teaching the children about collecting monarch eggs, growing milkweed, the plant necessary for their survival and building, tagging and finally releasing new butterflies also gave opportunities to teach the youngsters Mexican culture, environmental and political issues, climate change, and hands-on science learning. Since then, other teaching assignments prevented Grasso from pursuing more visits to events where he was surrounded by millions of monarch butterflies and he set aside his involvement in programs until retirement.
PHOTO: Full size caterpillar next to a ruler
Getting more involved after retirement, Grasso shared his love for the monarch experience with his granddaughters, planting milkweed and nectar plants to attract monarchs, collect eggs, raising the caterpillars and releasing butterflies. Still concerned about issues adversely affecting the monarch’s habit and migration, he offered the garden club some milkweed plants as well as caterpillars later in the summer. He then began harvesting swamp milkweed seeds for distribution through the club, and as interest grew, created a web site with information and resources called Monarchs and Milkweed in Atlantic Highlands. (https://sites.google.com/view/monarchsandmilkweedinah).
PHOTO: Forming the J – which is the shape the caterpillar hangs in just before turning into a chrysalis
O’Dwyer was also captivated by the idea of preserving an endangered species, learning more, and spreading the beauty and benefit of the monarch butterfly. So she quickly coordinated much of the caterpillar, plant and seed distribution not only to the scout troops but to neighbors, friends, and others who heard about it and wanted to become involved. She also then became both a Shade Tree commissioner as well as joined both the Shade Tree and Library Friends groups and continued to work reactivating the local garden club to share the new butterfly passion with more families. She referred to Grasso as the “Monarch King” since he introduced her to raising Monarchs in 2019 when she found a caterpillar crawling up my door frame.
PHOTO: Completed chrysalis
Wahl read something about it, was intrigued by the project and thought it was a stimulating and exciting project for her daisy and junior scouts. Last year some of the girls raised butterflies, and this year both troops are looking to find a way to get caterpillars and raise some butterflies in the coming months as a service project and experiment. Receiving the milk pod seeds from the local Garden Club gives the scouts the opportunity for working again and already are planning on planting in the next few weeks.
PHOTO: Chrysalis ready to “hatch” – what is called “eclose”
“Both troops are very active, “ the troop leader said, “but with COVID, helping and being ‘out’ in the community has been difficult. This project will allow us to give back to the community and the environment and get the girls outside together. It will also be fun to learn about butterflies and their impact in a hands-on way. The Daisies will pair this with their 3 Cheers For Animals Journey award where they will explore animals, the life cycle, pollination, and their role in the environment. The Brownies will use this in conjunction with earning their bugs badge and the juniors will be working on their Flowers and Plants badge,” Wahl said.
PHOTO: Female eclosed, and filling out wings
Many of the Scouts in Wahls’ troops are eager to express their joy with the project as well. Bella, a Junior, likes it because “it helps nature…” Bell amie liked that after she grew caterpillars into butterflies “I was able to hold them before I released them.” Tessa liked the idea of growing milk weed, saying “I think it would be so cool to see more butterflies”. And Grace says she was excited because “maybe we’ll see more butterflies around in our years,” a hope also expressed by Julia and Emma who definitely agree that “butterflies are pretty and I can’t wait to see more.”
PHOTO: Male being released
Melissa Festa has 15 girls in our troop. Daisy Troop 223 also in Middletown. “My co-leaders and I work together coming up with new and exciting adventures for our girls.” She said. “It’s been a challenging year as we all know but we managed to keep moving forward and making Girl Scouts both fun and educational for our girls.” Milkweed planting was a new project for her scouts, she said, and through it, the girls are learning more about nature and how plants grow.” The leader said she got involved with the project when she saw on social media that O’Dwyer was offering milkweed seeds, and she and her co-leaders agreed it would be a perfect project both for education and fun. “Our troop is excited to watch their milkweed seeds grow and attract Monarch butterflies. Nature is so beautiful and we are happy to be a part of this project,” she said.
PHOTO: Collecting seeds
As for Grasso and O’Dwyer, who started this year’s project with about two cups of milkweed seeds they had collected from their plants last year. We will have 210 happy recipients, and if we can get each to end up with 5 or more m about two cups of milkweed plants at a minimum…we will have over 1000 plants to protect our butterflies. We have five brownie and scout troops as well and they have promised to let us know how their projects go.”
PHOTO: Young milkweed plants that we shared last year (we are planting seedlings now to share after Mother’s Day
PHOTO: This is what milkweed looks like. 2 types. Swamp milkweed to the right and Butterfly weed milkweed with orange flowers. We gave out Swamp milkweed seeds mostly.
What is milkweed?
Besides being beautiful and relaxing to watch, monarch butterflies, one of approximately 20,000 species of butterflies, rarely cause any damage to commercial plants and contribute heavily towards a thriving ecosystem . Their presence or absences also helps determine the state of the ecosystem’s health. Butterflies also play a vital role in pollinating flowers
Monarchs cannot survive without milkweed. Monarch caterpillars need milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) to grow and develop, and female monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed. With changing land management practices, the eastern part of the United States has lost much milkweed from the landscape, so planting milkweed is one way to help other pollinators, as milkweed provides nectar resources to a diverse variety of bees and butterflies.
Milkweed is neither milk nor a weed, but rather a plant that exudes a sticky white sap that oozes from damaged leaves. It is a native wildflower that is found in North Americas fields and wetlands and is the monarch’s sole host plant. It grows from two to five or six feet in height and produces little star-shaped flowers in a variety of colors from yellow and green to pink or orange. In fall, the flowers split open and release hundreds of seeds for future plants. Besides butterflies and bees, it attracts may varieties of birds, primarily hummingbirds.
The butterfly lays her eggs on the underside of the leaves and the larvae feed on the leaves after hatching, without causing damage to the plant. At the same time the toxic chemicals in the plant make both the caterpillars and adult butterflies unappetizing to predators.
Plants require full sun and should be planted where their growth can be controlled as they can be spread easily. Refrigerating seeds at this time of year equals the cold moist conditions seeds endure to produce germination in the spring and a display of flowers the following summer.
Milkweed should be planted in groups of six or more to attract butterflies. They require minimal care . While the toxins in the sap protect the butterflies from predators, they could cause eye or skin irritation and can be poisonous to some pets if ingested in significant amounts