The Gift of Love And Monarchs

I’ve had milkweed and monarch butterflies in my garden for so many years that I don’t often give much thought to how it started. But recently people in Mar Vista have started talking about monarchs and I’ve been remembering. It began with a gift from a man I think of as the Johnny Appleseed of Westside milkweed.

For years when my daughter was young, we had dinner every Friday night at the Spitfire Grill. This comfortable family restaurant next to the Santa Monica airport was the perfect spot for an exhausted single mom with a demanding career and her toddler daughter to spend the evening. I could relax over a dinner that someone else cooked, nurse my glass of wine, and no one complained about my very active toddler running around the place. We became friendly with the owner, the staff and many of the other regulars, including a group of pilots and flight fans who always talked aviation over their evening cocktails.

One man in particular formed a grandfatherly relationship with my daughter, Caroline, and he delighted in her lively curiosity. We learned that Griff Horner was a contractor with an office over the restaurant and that he also taught flying lessons. One night, when Caroline was about 5, he asked if she might like a monarch butterfly to take home. He explained that he maintained a sort of monarch breeding sanctuary in his upstairs office – milkweed seedlings, chrysalides and, when they hatched, butterflies. He explained the life cycle of the monarch to Caroline, how the caterpillars only ate the milkweed which protected them by making them poisonous to birds and animals. He told her that for a long time he’d been sowing milkweed seeds around the Westside in an effort to help the monarchs survive. He disappeared upstairs for a few minutes and when he came back, he carried a Styrofoam cup containing a tiny milkweed plant and an impossibly beautiful monarch butterfly that had just hatched – it was still drying its wings. Caroline was mesmerized. And then he helped her pick it up. And she was over the moon. She walked around the restaurant all night with the butterfly delicately balanced on her hand – moving from table to table: “Hello,” she’d say, “I’m Caroline and this is my monarch butterfly.”

I was delighted for her, but seriously wondered how I would manage the drive home with a tiny milkweed plant and a living butterfly. And what would we do with the butterfly? Caroline, of course, wanted it to stay with us forever. That evening we had a long conversation about life and death and nature and the way of things and we left that special butterfly in the garden on the milkweed in the dark. In the morning her monarch was gone and we had another hard conversation about loss. We planted the milkweed seedling in our garden and over time it grew, self seeded and grew some more. But for years we never saw a caterpillar or a butterfly.

In the Fall of 2008, we heard some terrible news - Griff had been seriously injured in a plane crash just off the Malibu Pier. The initial reports were reassuring –he was conscious as he was airlifted to the hospital. But, tragically, Griff never left the hospital, dying at the age of 70 as a result of his injuries. Several months after Griff died, I was in the garden wondering if I should replace milkweed with something more “useful” and, unbelievably, for the first time ever, there were caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars. The milkweed was crawling with caterpillars. I called Caroline out to the garden and we marveled at the sight. I told her that I knew Griff was looking down from heaven and smiling and he was so very happy because we finally had monarchs in our garden.

Since that day, more than 100 monarch butterflies have hatched in our garden and there isn’t a moment in the process that I don’t think of Griff and his generous gift to my family, which was so much more than just the gift of a milkweed plant. Visit this garden 2C to meet Caroline's Monarch Butterflies.