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Bringing back the monarchs

CENTRAL POINT — A little square patch of fuzzy white plants grows along Hanley Road's gravel shoulder, of little consequence to passersby and perhaps the future target of a county road crew's weed patrol.

Tom Landis planted this patch of milkweed the size of a card table last spring with seeds he collected himself, hoping his if-you-plant-it-they-will-come project could mean regular visits from rare monarch butterflies, perhaps as early as next year.

But the retired Forest Service nursery expert peeled back the fuzz last week to find a tiger-striped, green-and-white monarch caterpillar munching away on his heavenly smorgasbord. This pile of weeds is gold to its royal denizens.

"When I saw that caterpillar, I almost fell over," Landis says. "I had no expectations. I didn't expect to find any out here. It's amazing."

New milkweed gardens planted specifically to draw migrating monarch butterflies are paying off around the Rogue Valley, showing promise in returning the royal bugs to local prominence.

The patch Landis planted last spring beneath the J. Herbert Stone Nursery sign along Hanley Road already has produced five caterpillars from monarchs that recently bred there.

A plot he planted last year in his east Medford yard produced one caterpillar last year, but the noxious milkweed there is closing in on 30 caterpillars this year.

And these aren't your average royal flutterers.

These late-season caterpillars are the fourth generation of the year, the so-called "super generation" of monarchs that live as long as eight months and can famously fly more than 2,000 miles to winter along the Southern California and northern Mexican coastlines before getting back in the air to start anew next year.

"These guys are going to be the elite athletes of monarchs," Landis says.

Milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars eat, yet the noxious weed is regularly targeted for removal by landowners as well as weed-abatement programs.

Half a century ago, when milkweed was more plentiful here, the Rogue Valley teemed with monarchs throughout the summer and fall. But in the past two decades, research shows that monarch populations in the West have dropped to one-sixth of what they were.

Landis and others are trying to reverse this trend by bringing back the weed, one little patch at a time.

Others he planted this year at Blue Heron Park in Phoenix, Valley of the Rogue State Park near Gold Hill and McGregor Park near Lost Creek Dam have yet to produce breeding monarchs, but they could sprout royal insects as early as next spring.

Landis also has a five-gallon bucket full of seeds ready to dole out to other shade-tree butterfly-o-philes to plant so they can chum in some monarchs, as well.

"Like all wildlife, the idea is habitat," Landis says. "You have to have habitat."

For monarchs, that means milkweed for caterpillars to feed on for the two weeks during which they fatten up before they form a chrysalis. When they emerge in about two weeks, they are bright adults ready to fly up to 40 miles a day to their summer haunts.

The first three generations of monarchs that hatched this year all live about 10 weeks, unlike these fourth-generation bugs that will return in the spring to start the next cycle.

When they do, they'll not only find the milkweed Landis has planted for them but also the Oregon sunshine and other nectar-producing native plants to feed the adults.

The Stone nursery plot has signs detailing why it's there and what it's producing, as well as an invitation for others to drink the milkweed Kool-Aid and create their own when-you-plant-it-they-will-come moment.

"You literally can make a difference," Landis says. "There you are. It's cool."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

A monarch butterfly caterpillar climbs a milkweed stalk on Hanley Road in Central Point. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Tom Landis looks for monarch butterfly caterpillars in a patch of milkweed that he planted to attract the insects on Hanley Road in Central Point. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch