Young Plants, A Bright Future

What do a horticulturist, an educator, a Nature Center manager, a conservation biologist, and a CEO have in common?

For starters, they all work at Tracy Aviary. But more importantly, this hodgepodge of professionals strapped on their masks and pulled on their gardening gloves to bring a long-anticipated vision to life: restore the meadow along the Jordan River.

 

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The Jordan River is an important waterway that connects Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake. Planting wild meadows and trees along the river serves as a buffer between buildings and the natural homes for animals of the river. These plants help to break down pollutants that run off roads and sidewalks. Photo credit: Jim Mullhaupt on Flickr.

On April 29, ten members of the Tracy Aviary team got to mulch, dig, and water to install Monarch Butterfly Waystations along the Jordan River Parkway Trail in South Salt Lake. These waystations are five 10’ x 10’ garden plots installed along a quarter-mile stretch of the trail. In each plot, Aviary staff planted wildflowers and plants native to Utah. These plants are well-adapted for our dry climate and are expected to fare well in the sandy soils found in this part of the river trail. These plants are: yellow cleome, showy milkweed, rabbitbrush, oakleaf sumac, sulfur buckwheat, fourwing salt brush, big sagebrush, cliff rose, little bluestem, and firecracker penstemon. Since their planting, bikers, walkers, and runners on the trail have been stopping by to curiously look at the progress of these baby plants.

 

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Early on in the Coronavirus outbreak in Utah, project leads Anne Terry, Lucila Fernandez, and Matthew Utley spent weeks planning how to mitigate transmission risk during the Waystation project. What was once an activity for a large-scale Earth Day event was scaled down to a staff-run activity. It is now maintained by small crews of volunteers. Featured here (left to right): Matthew Utley, Kate Kohut, and Anne Terry.

 

What is the purpose of a Monarch Waystation?

These garden plots of native plants and wildflowers are specifically designed and certified as habitats for Monarch Butterflies to find shelter, food, and a place to lay their eggs. The Monarch Waystation Program is a hemispheric effort to create safe migratory “highways” for Monarch butterflies by encouraging groups and individuals to set up such gardens along the annual flight path of these brilliantly colored, ecologically significant and culturally revered butterflies.

 

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Monarch butterfly are a culturally iconic species across the Americas. The return of Monarchs in Mexico coincides with Dia de los Muertos celebrations. For this reason, it is believed that they are the spirits of ancestors returning to the Earth. Photo credit: USFWS Midwest Region on Flickr.

A flight path is technical jargon for the route of their movements each year. The Monarch butterflies that we see in Salt Lake migrate twice a year. In early February-March, they fly north from central Mexico into the California coastline and the intermountain Rockies. Then, in late September - October, they migrate south back to Central Mexico. These Waystations are to the Monarch butterflies as gas stations and hotels are to humans; the butterflies use the Waystations as places to “refuel” and destinations to stay in.

For Monarchs, the Waystations are especially important because they require the planting of native milkweeds for certification. Monarchs have a special relationship with milkweeds because it is their only food source. For this reason, Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweeds. Once the eggs hatch about four days later, the Monarch caterpillars go on a feeding frenzy on the milkweed leaves for about two weeks. At this point, they find a spot to form a cocoon, and emerge as a butterfly about 10 days later.

 

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Milkweeds may be the only food item for Monarchs, but they pollinate many other plants along their flight path! When migrating, Monarchs travel 50-100 miles a day over a two-month period. Imagine all the plants that benefit from their movements! Photo credit: Vicki DeLoach on Flickr.

 

It’s not just about the Monarch butterflies…

The added benefit of focusing on making safe, healthy habitats for a species like the Monarch Butterfly is that doing so also provides space, shelter, food, and water for many other animals. Pollinators, animals that feed on nectar or seeds of plants and spread pollen due to contact with various plants, use these gardens, too. Some of the frequent visitors include: hummingbirds, bees, beetles, and bats. Many of these pollinators undergo similar migrations to the Monarch Butterfly and may also take advantage of large-scale networks of pollinator gardens and restored meadows, like Monarch Waystations, to successfully make this bi-annual trek! Other animals, like American goldfinch, stay year-round and will take advantage of the resources made available to them in these plots throughout the entire year

 

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A hummingbird shoves its head and beak into the tube-like flowers of the firecracker penstemon. Tracy Aviary monitors pollinators, like hummingbirds, to see how their habitats and the birds are doing! The Monarch Waystation is intended to support this effort. Photo credit: Renee Grayson on Flickr.

 

Many trowels, many hands; the more, the merrier for pollinators!

Tracy Aviary is not the only entity in Utah that is installing Monarch Waystations along the Jordan River, and the Monarch Butterflies will benefit because of it! As with many conservation efforts, it takes a village to address issues hurting the land, as well as restore and care for its waterways, soil, plants, trees, and animals (including us humans). In the case of the Monarch Waystation, our counterparts at Utah’s Hogle Zoo and The Jordan River Commission successfully installed Monarch Waystations along the Jordan River, too.

 

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One of three plots planted by Utah’s Hogle Zoo and the Jordan River Commission at Roi Hardy Park in Riverton to support monarch butterflies and other native pollinators. Photo credit: Tori Bird, Utah’s Hogle Zoo

As noted, it takes many people to coordinate a well-supported, and sustainable, project like a Monarch Waystation. Some plantings of this nature suffer because the coordinating body (in this case, Hogle Zoo) commits to follow-up care. This is troublesome for organizations that have limited capacity in the form of staff time to water growing plants and trees, and funding for supplies to water and weed.

 

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Volunteering during a pandemic looks a little different, but is possible! Pictured here are volunteers and Jordan River Commission staff donning masks and maintaining six feet of physical distance while placing young plants into a weeded planter. Photo credit: Tori Bird, Utah’s Hogle Zoo

On planting day in early May, 10 volunteers and interns came to assist with the preparation of the plots and the heavy-lifting of installing the native seedlings. They also made seed balls, which are balls of clay and mud packed with native seeds. These seed balls are used as low-maintenance ways to proliferate wildflowers and native plants. Now, an enthusiastic neighbor whose home is nestled against the plots waters and weeds these gardens. He is especially watchful for whitetop, a perennial with little white flowers from southwestern Asia that is very good at taking over space and soil nutrients that otherwise would be suitable for Utah’s native plants. Hogle is now committed at a practical, and manageable scale: to periodically check in and assess additional action, as needed.

With a similar thought process in mind, Tracy Aviary’s Jordan River Nature Center is working with volunteers from the men’s Homeless Resource Center in South Salt Lake to maintain Monarch Waystations. Once a week, a small crew of volunteers come from the shelter, put on their masks, and regularly sanitize their hands and shared equipment to visit each of the five plots and give them some TLC.

 

Piecemeal Restoration

The pipe dream for the Tracy Aviary Jordan River Nature center is to bring back fields of thriving, vibrant wild meadow in James Madison Park, along with participating in a budding network of such meadows along the full 52-mile stretch of the Jordan River. However, as a Nature Center that is just starting up, our team does not want to compromise the implementation of such ambitions by biting more than we can chew.

Installing, maintaining, and monitoring plant and pollinator activity at Monarch Waystations is an example of an intentional, step-by-step approach to restoration. Instead of weeding, replanting, and watering larger tracts of land in one go, Tracy Aviary hopes to break down the restoration of meadow habitats along the river with finite, manageable goals like expanding the Monarch Waystation network, one plot at a time. This allows us to evaluate how well management of the plots are going, and adjust accordingly as we proceed into subsequent steps to bring wild meadows back to the Jordan River.  

 

Give a Monarch Waystation a visit to see the progress of these young plants and which animals are visiting them already!

  • Jordan River Nature Center: Visit the Monarch Waystations by parking at James Madison Park and heading south on the Jordan River Parkway Trail.
  • Roi Hardy Park: Visit the Monarch Waystations here by parking at 12400 River Vista Drive Riverton, UT 84065. The three plots are on either side of the entrance to the Jordan River Parkway Trail

Resources

  • Learn more about helping the Jordan River at Tracy Aviary's Jordan River Nature Center here.
  • For more volunteer opportunities with Tracy Aviary, please go here.

Monarch Waystation Program

Helping the Jordan River

 

 

- Lucila Fernandez, Conservation Outreach Biologist