HYDE PARK — Members of a Hyde Park-area philanthropic and social group for women are educating neighbors on the benefits of milkweed as they work to protect the pollinator-friendly plant and attract monarch butterflies to the community.
The University of Chicago Service League‘s monarch butterfly group, which officially began meeting in January, is also building upon existing local efforts to care for the monarchs and other pollinators.
The monarch group’s main focus is to educate Hyde Parkers on the benefits of milkweed and encourage residents to grow their own at home, lead organizer Marilyn Cavicchia said. She’s a Hyde Park Neighborhood Club gardener and an administrator of the 41,000-member The Beautiful Monarch online community.
“Urban environments like [Hyde Park] are really important to have places where a monarch can skip from one patch of milkweed, go a couple doors down for some more, and a little further — here’s some more,” Cavicchia said. “This kind of patchwork thing in an urban neighborhood really does help.”
The group’s first project is surveying neighbors on where milkweed is already planted in Hyde Park. Members have logged about 20 locations around the neighborhood to date, with particular concern for places where milkweed risks being unintentionally removed.
“We can find ways to support the milkweed that’s at risk, whether it’s by putting up a sign or reaching out to whoever owns the building — ‘Here’s why you want to keep it, and if you can’t keep it, let us know,'” Cavicchia said.
If residents have unwanted milkweed on their property, group members can ensure there aren’t monarch eggs or caterpillars on the plants and offer to relocate them, Cavicchia said.
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Once the group gets a better sense of where milkweed is located, they’ll shift to sharing seedlings and thinking of fun rewards or incentives for those who grow the plant.
“I think and hope that I’m going to have a lot of seedlings,” Cavicchia said, as she has been growing milkweed in milk jugs that will soon be transferred to the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club’s pollinator garden. “If it goes well, I may have a lot of seedlings to share with people who want it.”
The monarch group has grown to include about ten members since its founding, with each person taking on different responsibilities, Cavicchia said.
Dottie Jeffries is the group’s legislative liaison, tasked with reaching out to lawmakers and pushing them to support pollinator-friendly policies.
Jeffries is preparing to advocate to local representatives about a U.S. House resolution to conserve the monarch butterfly population. It’s co-sponsored by downstate Rep. Rodney Davis (D-13th), chair of the Congressional Pollinator Caucus.
Other members are planting milkweed at their homes, leading educational efforts and encouraging neighbors to preserve milkweed in their lawns and gardens. The effort is “a great example of citizen science — of laypeople being able to do something valuable” in the field of urban ecology, Jeffries said.
“Hyde Park is full of houses with yards and people who garden, and it’s just been interesting to watch the synergy of this group develop,” Jeffries said. “If you look at how this group and how the momentum built, it’s certainly hit a chord in Hyde Park — and it’s replicable in other areas of the city.”
The monarch group’s work complements other community projects, like the pollinator garden at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club that Cavicchia tends.
The pollinator garden is a monarch waystation, designated by the nonprofit Monarch Watch as providing the necessary milkweed, nectar plants and sunlight necessary to support generations of butterflies and offer shelter during their migration.
The garden, a focal point of the neighborhood club’s summer camp, has long allowed children to learn about milkweed’s value to the environment — much like the Service League group is doing for the wider community, development director Chris Younkin-Wilson said.
“The location of the garden is right within the same area as the playground,” Younkin-Wilson said. “It’s not necessarily something that we try to keep kids out of or away from. … The kids belong in the garden just as much as the butterflies, and can learn from it and contribute to it.”
“There’s very little land set aside for native plants and to support the wildlife associated with native plants” in dense urban areas, making the monarch group’s cause a necessary one, Nichols Park wildflower meadow steward Dan Brown said.
The Nichols Park meadow is tended to by the Hyde Park Garden Fair committee, and the spring event typically supplies the meadow with pollinator-friendly plants — that is, when coronavirus isn’t canceling the fair, as has been the case for the last two years.
Though he’s not a formal partner of the monarch group, “the work I do supports their goals” of preserving Hyde Park’s pollinators, Brown said.
The neighborhood’s push to plant and preserve milkweed “encourages practices that benefit a bunch of other species as well,” Cavicchia said. Though monarchs headline the Service League’s efforts, beetles, moths and other butterfly larvae are among the critters that eat milkweed too.
“The trouble that monarchs are having is pretty much directly related to what we as humans have done, from climate change to habitat loss,” Cavicchia said. “It’s a chance to put something back, and it’s a fairly easy way to help — if you can do it, why not?”
To let the monarch group know where milkweed is located in Hyde Park, or to get involved, email Cavicchia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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