Sunday, April 05, 2015

PLANT IT AND THEY WILL COME: Welcoming the Monarchs back to St. Francisville

PLANT IT AND THEY WILL COME: Welcoming the Monarchs back to St. Francisville
By Anne Butler

"Monarch, Chrysalis and Caterpiller on Ageratum" painting by Murrell Butler
Long known as the Garden Spot of Louisiana, its location where the rugged Tunica Hills skirt the Mississippi River gives the St. Francisville area diversified flora and fauna found nowhere else in south Louisiana. The steep hills and deep cool hollows harbor rare ferns, ginseng, and even chipmunks, while the rich soil and long growing seasons have produced magnificent landscapes and formal gardens, many full of heirloom plantings dating from the 19th century. The abundant waterways and unspoiled forests still attract much the same prolific birdlife, both resident and migratory, that so impressed the artist Audubon when he first stepped off the steamboat at Bayou Sara landing in 1821.

And insects! In this veritable Garden of Eden there were and are plentiful pollinators so necessary for healthy plant growth, the honey bees and the beautiful butterflies. Experts who harvest and collect bugs, both living and dead, for the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans, a never-ending task, love to work in the St. Francisville area. “Ah, heaven on earth! What a delightful place,” says Linda Barber Auld, otherwise known as “The Bug Lady” and owner/operator of Barber Laboratories in Jefferson, a company begun by her father in 1921 to control invasive and destructive pests like termites but expanded by Linda to place new emphasis on raising the populations of beneficial insects as well.

monarch buttlerfly by ptWalsh
Monarch photo by ptWalsh
She’ll be leading a collecting group in St. Francisville this summer. On her last visit, she was enormously impressed with the huge variety of beetles and large silk moths attracted to the group’s big night lights called blacklights, and she also observed lots of Tiger Swallowtails nectaring on buttonbush pompoms. What she didn’t see was many Monarchs, and that’s about par for the course across the country, a situation she’s not going to take sitting down.

These beautiful black and orange butterflies migrate from Canada to Mexican overwintering sites, and as they pass in great clouds though parts of the United States on their 3,000-mile journey, thousands stop over. They drink nectar from many different varieties of flowers before laying their eggs, but their caterpillars can survive only on one plant, milkweed.
Today the US Fish and Wildlife Service is considering placing the Monarch on the Endangered Species “threatened” list because populations have declined by a shocking 95 percent since 1996, from 1 billion to 33 million. The drastic drop is blamed primarily on the increasing use of herbicides sprayed on crops genetically modified to withstand them, killing millions of acres of other plants including milkweed that serve as habitat for beneficial pollinators like bees and butterflies.

zebra by ptWalsh
 Zebra Longwing photo by ptWalsh
Calling the Monarch “the canary in the coal mine,” environmental groups and federal agencies are instituting a national strategy calling for the creation of milkweed safe havens, and “The Bug Lady” is on a mission to spread seeds throughout Louisiana. “Plant it and they will come,” she promises. In 2014 her Project Monarch distributed more than 120,000 seeds, installed butterfly gardens in dozens of schools, allowed hundreds of students to witness the miracle of metamorphosis while raising Monarchs, and promoted public awareness through interviews and appearances emphasizing that the Monarch cannot successfully reproduce without its only caterpillar host plant.

This year Auld’s goals include the installation of five native milkweed species in the gardens, increasing involvement with volunteer gardeners who belong to established societies and horticultural organizations, and having milkweed gardens planted at all of Louisiana’s Welcome Centers and Visitor Centers, including the one on US Highway 61 which greets St. Francisville’s visitors arriving from the north every day except major holidays from 8:30 to 5. Rosie Politz of that welcome center is excited about the idea, especially with gardening enthusiasts already on staff, and can’t wait to plant the seeds provided by Linda Auld as soon as weather conditions permit. Additional information on butterfly gardening is available from Linda’s Barber Laboratories, and she can provide not just advice but also supplies, seeds in colorful containers with planting instructions, and plants for garden clubs, schools, public and private garden spaces (online contact:

photo by ptWalsh
photo by ptWalsh
In May visitors will have a chance to see some of St. Francisville’s most interesting private landscapes when the Feliciana Horticulture Society, Master Gardeners of the LSU Ag Center, host their annual Spring Garden Stroll, with proceeds benefitting 4-H scholarships, school gardens and other community beautification projects. An Arts for All exhibit in conjunction with the garden tours will be in Audubon Market Hall. Information is available by telephone (225-635-3614) or online at or by email (

Visitors can observe at a safe distance an entirely different type of gardening…acres and acres of food crops as well as flower beds lining white fences…on the third weekend in April, when the gates of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola swing open at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 18 and 19, for the Spring Rodeo and Arts & Crafts Festival. Arena events pit inmates against professional rodeo stock, the only exception being the ladies’ barrel racing, and crowd favorites are the events unique to Angola like the Guts & Glory with offenders on foot trying to snatch a $100 ticket from between the horns of the meanest brahma bull around. Inmate hobbycraft items include jewelry, leathercraft, paintings, woodworking and toys, and there’s live music by inmate bands, a museum with compelling exhibits covering the long and bloody history of the prison, and plenty of food ranging from ribs and burgers to jambalaya, pizza, nachos and “tornado potatoes,” ice cream and candy apples. For information: 225-655-2030 or 225-655-2607 weekdays 8:30 to 4; online Advance tickets are a must, and visitors should remember that this is a maximum-security prison with regulations that must be followed to the letter.
Tiger Butterfly
photo by Henry Cancienne
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: the Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular in springtime. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Sunday and Monday).

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224; online visit, or (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).