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Nonprofit lures back butterflies

Planting milkweed may aid dwindling monarch population
by: Jim Clark, Bonnie Kiser and niece Susanna Zimmerman examine the backyard milkweed plants Kiser and her husband have planted to try to make the area more hospitable to monarchs.

In Portland's Alameda neighborhood, a home on Northeast Knott Street is overflowing with some unusual-looking plants that are quite fragrant in early summer.

Several dozen milky, green, leafy bushes rise chest-high on the parking strip and alongside the bungalow. The bushes are showy milkweed, planted by homeowners Jim and Bonnie Kiser to attract monarch butterflies.

'They only lay their eggs on milkweed,' Jim Kiser said. 'If there's no place to lay them, they can't reproduce.'

The Kisers are two hardworking members of a small nonprofit called Cascadia Monarchs, which is dedicated to restoring milkweed to Northwest Oregon.

Much of the work the Kisers do is out of their own backyard, where at least 400 milkweed plants are in various stages of growth in large planter boxes. The couple travels as far south as Corvallis and north of Vancouver, Wash., to plant milkweed, but they also distribute plants to their neighbors - even to their postal carrier.

'Lordy, I've got everybody in the family involved in this,' said Jim Kiser, father of three and uncle to 11 nieces and nephews.

The Kisers launched Cascadia Monarchs in 1997 along with their friend, Steve Northway, a native-plant expert in Southern Oregon, who told them how showy milkweed was disappearing from the northwestern part of the state.

'In the Willamette Valley and west of the Cascades, milkweed has nearly been eliminated due to farming and urbanization,' Kiser said.

Showy milkweed is the sole food supply for monarch caterpillars. In large doses, the plant is poisonous - although a human would have to eat 1 percent of his body weight to get sick. Monarch larvae eat the milkweed as a defense against predators, making the butterflies a poisonous snack.

The lack of habitat threatens the West Coast monarch population. Each summer, up to 100 million monarchs migrate north from California and Mexico. The ones from Mexico, which fly as far as 3,000 miles to Minnesota, travel in clusters that look like clouds of butterflies. There are fewer butterflies traveling up the West Coast from California, however, because their winter habitat is threatened by development and their summer habitat also is disappearing.

'People who were here 30 and 40 years ago remember seeing monarchs as children,' Kiser said. 'There are very few sightings up here now.'

Returning monarch butterflies to western Oregon has been surprisingly frustrating for the nonprofit organization. Milkweed is a stubborn plant that 'hates to be transplanted,' he said.

The Kisers have seen a lot of transplanted milkweed die over the years, and they're still not exactly sure in what kind of environment it thrives. They've tried spreading seeds on the ground with no luck. They have transplanted thousands of milkweed plants, and there appears to be no rhyme nor reason as to which stands survive.

One of their most successful sites is just outside of Corvallis, on a 200-acre ranch. Cascadia Monarchs planted milkweed every 25 feet along a road for a mile and it is inexplicably thriving.

An experiment with the milkweed a few years ago yielded some interesting results. Kiser planted the milkweed in a long, transparent bed so he could see the roots. He discovered that milkweed roots stretch at least four feet underground.

'They need a lot of water when they're young but then they reach down to groundwater and you don't have to water them anymore,' he said.

Despite the setbacks, Cascadia Monarchs keeps handing out milkweed plants to urban gardeners, farmers and business owners. Last year, the group gave away 4,200 plants.

'People may be concerned about salmon, but what can they do about it? In this case, just planting some milkweed can help restore a population of butterflies,' Kiser said.

It took six years for a single monarch butterfly to find the Kisers' bed of milkweed. In 2004, one butterfly laid its tiny eggs in their front yard. When the eggs hatched, the Kisers brought the larvae in their home to protect them from predators. Over two weeks, they watched a colorful caterpillar grow, then spin a cocoon and emerge as a monarch butterfly. Out of six larvae, five survived and were released.

Earlier this month, the Kisers saw another monarch laying eggs on their milkweed, but none of those eggs appears to have hatched. According to the book 'Chasing Monarchs' by Robert Michael Pyle, out of the 500 eggs a female lays each summer, only two actually survive to be adult butterflies.

Cascadia Monarchs distributes milkweed from November through March. The group can be reached via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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