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By Lucette Moramarco
Associate Editor 

Relieve stress while helping butterflies


Last updated 5/22/2018 at 6:43am

Lucette Moramarco photos

Pam Meisner (aka Ms. Smarty Plants) from The Water Conservation Garden explains the life cycle of the butterfly to her audience at Woman of Wellness May 3.

The Fallbrook Regional Health District-sponsored Woman of Wellness program May 3 featured Pam Meisner (aka Ms. Smarty Plants) from The Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon. Held at Fallbrook Library, the theme was "Butterfly Gardening is Good for the Heart".

After a quick explanation of the Blue Zone Project® by FRHD's Wendy Lyon, a good-size crowd of ladies and three men enjoyed learning about butterflies and the health benefits of gardening.

According to Meisner, working outside is calming whether one has one plant on a patio or a whole garden. Gardening helps relieve stress, she said. She also thinks that kids now miss out on outside experiences. In a 24-hour day, she said, they sleep seven to 12 hours, watch a screen for over nine hours (computer, television, etc.) and are outside for only half an hour. She said, "Ms. Smarty Plants is going to change that."

A knowledgeable and enthusiastic speaker, she talked about some important visitors to any garden. Meisner said that butterflies are one of three huge pollinators, along with bees and bats. (Many plants like cacti bloom at night so are pollinated by bats which are nocturnal.)

"We are losing bees and butterflies," she added. It takes five generations of butterflies to migrate from Canada to Mexico. The number that makes it has declined 90 percent she said, but no one knows why they migrate to begin with.

The reasons for the decline, Meisner explained, include human beings and climate change, a lack of food supply, pesticides and their changing environment. Milkweed is the only plant that monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on; there are 16 varieties of milkweed across the United States.

There are two kinds of plants that butterflies prefer; the first is the host plant where they lay their eggs. Once the caterpillars hatch, they eat all the leaves on that plant. The second is the plant from which the butterflies eat nectar.

To encourage the butterfly population's survival, Meisner advises people to plant at least three milkweed plants at a time. She handed out packets of milkweed seeds to everyone who wanted them.

She said the life cycle of a butterfly is two to three weeks. When a caterpillar spins its chrysalis, she explained, it looks like a dead leaf so it is camouflaged from its predators, usually hidden underneath something. The butterfly emerges from the chrysalis when the weather is warm. She took an empty chrysalis around the room so everyone could see it up close.

She also showed a glass version of a monarch chrysalis which is green with a little gold crown on top (hence its name). The chrysalis turns dark before the butterfly emerges with damp wings. With its first breath, its tongue uncurls in two long pieces which join together as a straw with which it drinks nectar, Meisner said.

Most host plants are drought tolerant; many of them are weeds. The tiger swallowtail likes lemon trees. She took a real swallowtail around the audience, giving everyone butterfly kisses.

More facts about butterflies – they taste with their feet, the color of their wings is made up of individual scales and you can tell the difference between male and female monarch butterflies. The males have two spots on their lower wings.

Also, the difference between a moth and a butterfly is that a moth closes its wings down and a butterfly closes its wings up.

Caterpillars take five stages of gorging, busting their skin each time then continuing to eat, eat, eat. Then they crawl up high to hang upside down and spin a chrysalis around them. Butterfly caterpillars are colorful whereas moth caterpillars are furry.

Another little-known fact is that butterflies don't pee or poop, Meisner said; they "mist". They spend 10 days in the chrysalis and if the temperature is too cold, they will stay there for up to two months longer, until the air is warm. Butterflies are only seen in warm weather.

To protect butterflies, Meisner advised not using pesticides as the poison is systemic, absorbed throughout the whole plant. She said San Diego has the worst soil in the world. "You don't want to bring amendments on top of the soil, they need to be mixed in, 2/3 soil to 1/3 amendment," she said.

She also recommended using organic material for mulch – leaves, bark chips, rock, shredded bark – which will save 40 percent of one's water bill. Most of a home's water use is outside in the yard.

Using mulch helps stop weeds from growing and keeps water in the soil instead of evaporating. Mulch can be used with potted plants too with three to four inches on top of the soil. Plants also need the right kind of irrigation Meisner said, meaning it waters the base of the plant, directly into the soil.

The milkweed plant is the only plant monarch butterflies will lay their eggs on; when the caterpillars hatch they eat all the plant's leaves.

With sprinklers, on the other hand, less than 10 percent of the water gets to the roots of the plant; the rest is blown away or evaporates. When watering a tree, it is not good to water the trunk. To reach the roots, the water needs to be directed at the drip line of the leaves. Circular irrigation waters all around the tree away from the trunk.

The biggest problem is overwatering, she said; "You need to put your finger in the dirt to tell if it needs watering, not just guess."

Meisner said gardening gives her pleasure which has made a real difference in her life. Even though she has had MS (multiple sclerosis) for 32 years, she thinks gardening is why "I am still going; I have taken the time to de-stress my life."

So, she advised everyone to find that something for themselves, "maybe you like to knit, bake, grandkids – there is something out there for each and everyone of you to de-stress. Take the time to smell the roses. Whatever it is, give yourself three minutes a day to pick a flower, smell a flower, eat chocolate..."

The next Woman of Wellness program will be on June 7.


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