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An Interesting Neighbor

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Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2012 9:00 am

Annie Hart isn’t a typical gardener.

The plants she tends sometimes look a little shopworn. But she doesn’t fret over it.

In fact, she might start worrying if the foliage isn’t being nibbled on.

It’s not that she doesn’t care about plants - she does. But there’s a big picture here that she cares about more.

You see, Annie Hart welcomes every one of the nearly 200 species of butterflies living in Oklahoma to sample her garden.

But the one species she champions is a traveler passing through, borne on fragile wings and winds of chance for a remarkable journey.

So enamored is Hart with Monarch butterflies that she spends hours tending what she hopes will be a horticultural welcome mat - a place to stop, to rest, to feed.

“Anything we can do, we’ll try,” she said.

For the fifth time in as many years, Hart is doing her part as organizer and chief volunteer behind the Monarch Migration & Butterfly Festival.

The festival began in Cole in 2008, drawing 400 participants that year and swelling to more than 1,000 in 2009.

After outgrowing Cole’s facilities, the festival moved in 2010 to the Jerusalem Community Heritage Center & Park near Washington.

Hart is a native Californian who admits she never gave much thought to butterflies of any ilk until a few years ago.

She’d known that Monarchs migrate through California, but wasn’t aware there is also an eastern migration that crosses Oklahoma.

That changed in 1995 when Hart and her husband moved to Oklahoma and she found herself living smack in the middle of a major migration route used by Monarch butterflies en route from Canada to Mexico.

Her awareness of the colorful migration was heightened in 2008 when a hard freeze in Mexico killed 80 percent of the eastern population of Monarch butterflies.

That’s when Hart started looking for the butterflies and began her efforts to draw them in.

Along the way, the people she met after moving to McClain County - particularly those she calls the “old timers” - were educating her about Mother Nature.

Monarch butterflies are hit by loss of habitat, particularly those plants which are vital to the Monarch life cycle, but which most people view as noxious weeds or, at best, bothersome plants.

Even changing cultivation practices have affected the available food for migrating Monarch butterflies.

Decades ago, farmers would let alfalfa bloom and they’ve told Hart of fields blooming purple. Then the Monarch would arrive and for days, the fields would be orange as far as the eye could see. And when the butterflies moved on, the landscape would be purple once more.

But nowadays, alfalfa is cut and baled before it has a chance to bloom.

Then there’s the milkweed, the only plant in all creation on which the Monarch can lay her eggs.

The caterpillars that hatch must feed on the milkweed. Toxins in the milkweed’s latex give the Monarch butterfly a self defense mechanism against predators.

The old-timers tell Hart that milkweed was once plentiful in these parts. But demonized as a noxious weed, milkweed has nearly been exterminated by herbicides and roadside mowing.

And so Hart has become a champion of weeds, as well as butterflies.

She started by planting butterfly gardens and taking her message to the next generation by offering programs in area schools and recruiting volunteers who share her zeal and don’t mind tending a few weeds in their gardens.

Those volunteers are Kay Webb and Kelly Alexander.

Because there’s no water in the Jerusalem park, the volunteers created a catchment system utilizing rain barrels. It’s now possible to collect and hold 450 gallons of water for hand irrigation.

“I’m constantly thinking about it and ways to engage people,” she said.

And there are signs she’s winning, if not converts, then at least cooperators.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation office in Purcell calls Hart before they mow the rights-of-way alongside area highways.

That’s to give her a chance to dig milkweed or collect any caterpillars feeding on the plants.

And though the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service will tell you that milkweed is a noxious pest of a plant, Extension Agent Wes Lee has extended an olive branch of sorts to Hart and her volunteers.

“I don’t know what he says (about milkweed) to pasture owners now,” she said, “but he has invited us to plant a butterfly garden at his new office.”

Eventually, Hart would like to see a chain of Monarch festivals across the state to celebrate the travelers.

Until then she will continue to champion Monarch butterflies, tend gardens of “weeds” and forgive caterpillars whenever she comes across half-eaten leaves on her plants.

To do otherwise is simply unthinkable.

“In the Plains, we take them (Monarchs) for granted,” she said. “When I learned of their plight, I wanted to help. It would be tragic if there was no migration and people didn’t know why.”

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