You can call Annie Hart "Mother Milkweed" if you wish and she won't mind. She, in fact, relishes the title because Hart is a champion of the lowly milkweed. It isn't so much that Hart thinks it is such a beautiful plant, but rather because milkweed is so important to the thing that she really finds beauty in: the monarch butterfly.
Hart organized the Monarch Migration Celebration three years ago in Cole. The reason was simple: She believes monarchs need a champion. The third-annual celebration will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 2 in the Jerusalem community, two miles east of Cole.
"A few of the people in Cole noticed fewer and fewer monarchs, less than they had seen historically. We had heard stories of monarchs filling the fields, turning alfalfa fields from purple to orange as they filled the fields, and we wondered what had happened to them all. So, we did a little research and learned that there was a hard freeze in Mexico in 2002, and near 80 percent of the population was frozen," she said.
That set Hart on a mission that resulted in three butterfly gardens in Cole, and a festival that is unique and colorful — as colorful, in fact, as the monarch. A parade features festivalgoers dressed as butterflies, flowers and caterpillars. Hart comes, of course, in her Mother Milkweed costume. There is food, face painting and, of course, butterflies.
The gardens attract the butterflies, but because the monarch migration does not always follow a festival schedule, it is up to Hart and her volunteers to take it beyond just a butterfly watch. Monarchs are on display in all their forms. Monarch caterpillars chew on leaves and crawl up and down stems in screen cages. Visitors often get to see the new monarchs emerge from cocoons and spread their wings for the first time. Children are encouraged to enter a drawing to help release recently hatched monarchs into the wild. Children and butterflies become a completely natural pairing.
So the Monarch Migration Celebration comes complete with home-grown, living examples.
Hart said that it is not an easy task.
"We planted our monarch host plants here in the garden, and as the caterpillars grew, we would harvest them or bring them into the house. As long as you have plant material to feed them, they can continue to grow and provide an area for them to pupate on a stick or the top of screen cage or something, and then you can have your butterflies."
Festivals sometimes spring from traditions or events that are worth commemorating, but this might be the first event that actually sparks a movement. One that takes us back to milkweed and flowers in general. If monarchs are to survive, they need both of those — flowers for the nectar that fuels the migration engine, and milkweed on which to lay their eggs. The sap in the milkweed is a natural bird repellent, providing a safe haven for the caterpillars as they begin their change from crawling critter to beautiful creature. Most people love flowers, but not many people are fans of milkweed. They will be if Hart has her way.
With the butterfly gardens established in Cole, the festival has moved this year down the road to the Jerusalem community, where Hart and her core group of volunteers have spent the summer creating more butterfly gardens. They maintain a seed bank of milkweed and flowers that produce the nectar that the delicate creatures feed on.
They make themselves available to any community in central Oklahoma that is interested in creating its own butterfly gardens. She even thinks it might be good to move the festival to a different community each year so that butterfly gardens spread and attract more of the migrants.
"Any community in the central flyway, which includes the area from the northern border to the southern border through the central part of the state, could host a butterfly event, and it would benefit the butterflies," she said. "If a town wanted to just host it one time and establish the habitat, that's fine.... And if someone wanted to make it an annual event in their area, I'm sure it would be well attended."
Hart is even taking her campaign to save the milkweed to Oklahoma's roadsides. She has a passionate appeal. "It's very important to preserve it, and I'm trying to work with our highway departments and trying to have them maybe reduce the spraying programs that kill the broadleaf weeds. And every patch of milkweed will hold monarchs if you provide it to them."
If you attend the Monarch Migration Celebration on Oct. 2, be aware that behind the fun and games is a serious issue to Hart and her tireless volunteers. And if you spend a little time talking to her and perhaps witness the birth of a new butterfly, you may also be recruited into Annie's Monarch and Milkweed Militia. The monarchs have found their champion.
Ron Stahl is co-host of "Integris Discover Oklahoma."
Monarch Migration Celebration 2010
• When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 2.
• Where: the Jerusalem community, two miles east of Cole on State Highway 74B, between Goldsby and Blanchard.
• Information: Look in the "Festivals and Events" section at Travel