Patricia Cluff has created an ever-expanding waystation for monarch butterflies at her home in North Berwick. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

NORTH BERWICK — Patricia Cluff started converting her English-style gardens to monarch butterfly habitat 20 years ago, well before she knew anything about a University of Kansas program to help a species whose numbers are in sharp decline in North America.

Kathrine Farris in Topsham stumbled upon a monarch caterpillar in her backyard that was feeding on milkweed, and quickly became consumed by the beautiful insects. She soon allowed the milkweed to spread.

And Dave Comey of Harpswell had no idea he acquired the equivalent of a monarch butterfly superhighway when he purchased a farm with fields full of milkweed. He has refrained from mowing the fields in the summer to help the butterflies before they migrate south in the fall.

Comey, Farris and Cluff also are all part of a surge in interest in monarchs in Maine in recent years. All three have registered their monarch habitats with the University of Kansas Monarch Watch Waystation Program.

Patricia Cluff has a half dozen pocket gardens devoted to help monarchs, such as this butterfly and caterpillar on swamp milkweed. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Over the past four years, the number of waystations in Maine has nearly doubled, from 63 to 118.

“The butterflies are beautiful. I realize their habitat is being destroyed by subdivisions,” Comey said. “As the places for them to stop and rest on their natural flyway become smaller and smaller because of pesticides and subdivisions, I want to do what I can to help them.”

Monarch Watch waystations are feeding stations that provide milkweed plants, which monarch caterpillars require to grow, and nectar plants for the butterflies. The designated areas that are registered with the University of Kansas require nectar plants to help monarch butterflies fuel up before making the 3,000-mile migration to Mexico, where most spend the winter. There are more than 29,000 waystations registered with the university.

Orley “Chip” Taylor, the Kansas professor who started the Monarch Watch Waystation Program, said every bit of habitat is essential. The number of monarch butterflies in North America today is believed by scientists to be about 20 percent of what it was 25 years ago, he said.

“With climate change, we need everything out there,” Taylor said. “Even though Maine doesn’t contribute a lot to monarch migration, the way the habitat is changing and the way climate change is changing – it’s all indication we need habitat everywhere.”

A monarch caterpillar crawls on swamp milkweed at Patricia Cluff’s home in North Berwick. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

In 2005, the University of Kansas launched an effort to help a monarch population that declined rapidly in the early 2000s, largely because of new weed-resistant pesticides used on corn and soybean crops in the Midwest – the butterflies’ chief migration route. With people spending more time at home during the pandemic, Taylor is hoping others will assist the monarchs in their backyard gardens.

“In 2005 and 2006, there was no milkweed in the corn and soybean fields. We’re talking well over 100 million acres. Historically, this was monarch habitat. In the last few years we’ve added 2,000 to 3,000 monarch waystations a year. We’re hoping for quite a few more this year, because people have time,” said Taylor, who three years ago was named an honorary member of The Garden Club of America, the group’s highest honor.

Comey and his wife, Susan, purchased an eight-acre farm in Topsham in the fall of 2017 to use the two large barns for storage. Half of the land was old fields teeming with milkweed, but it hadn’t been farmed in 20 years. By the next summer, the fields were covered with several thousand monarch butterflies.

A neighbor who grew up near the old farm knew it to be a monarch haven, and asked Dave Comey to wait until the fall to mow the fields, until after the monarch migration. Comey did just that, and joined Monarch Watch in the winter of 2019 to learn more.

“I didn’t know anything about the monarchs when I bought it,” Comey said.

Farris’ monarch commitment also started by accident. In 2017, she found a small milkweed plant with a large caterpillar on it in her lawn. The next year she noticed more milkweed and 30 caterpillars. Then in 2019, there were more than 100. Farris did research, found Monarch Watch, and joined the effort last summer.

“Honestly, I love gardening, but I’ve never been much of a ‘bug girl’,” explained Farris, who has an Instagram account devoted to the monarchs. “However, these caterpillars mesmerized me. I would go out every morning with my coffee and just watch them. I set up a chair to take pictures and videos. I became slightly obsessed.”

Cluff is the most invested among the three Maine monarch fans.

Patricia Cluff named her monarch waystation “Gratitude Acre.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

She named her monarch waystation “Gratitude Acre” when she registered it in September 2018. While giving a tour last weekend in her rolled-up carpenter pants and Tevas, the 70-year-old gardener beamed with pride at her small pocket gardens full of monarch caterpillars.

At the front of the Cluff house on a quiet, windy street in North Berwick, bright nectar plants such as the bold, violet echinacea flowers color the garden, while milkweed is camouflaged behind. In the backyard in the morning sun, the milkweed climbs toward the sky while more than 10 monarch caterpillars move slowly, gorging on the leaves.

Her eclectic, colorful mix of high and low-lying plants was inspired by a career in retail that started at Bloomingdale’s in New York City, where she displayed crystal and china to attract shoppers. But 20 years ago, Cluff changed course and starting working as a landscape designer. With the help of her husband, Tom, she started ripping out attractive flower beds in order to create more space for the plants the monarchs need.

Her gardens remain manicured, pruned with a clear style – but they now are populated with plants monarchs love. The large bee balm and ironweed tower, while day lilies, blazing star and black-eyed Susans offer an array of yellow, orange, and purple flowers – a veritable banquet of nectar. Pottery bowls and concave slate rocks hang or lie hidden among the plants to offer the butterflies and birds water. And, of course, mixed in everywhere, is milkweed, both common and swamp milkweed.

“It’s a buffet,” Cluff said through a face mask that hid her smile, but not her pride.

It’s enough for a morning full of work every day of the summer, always before dawn. But around mid-morning Cluff stops weeding and pruning, and sits in her garden chair from under a tree to watch for monarchs that often come floating by.

“It’s joy,” Cluff said. “It’s my little domain. And I contribute in my way. And anyone can have a waystation. You can have one in an apartment in Portland. You can grow beautiful flowers in a one large container pot.”

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