Protecting Nature’s Fragile Wonder

By Ann Christoph.
By Ann Christoph.

On a farm the kitchen is a combination office, staging area and coffee shop and I was enjoying being at this hub of my brother’s Nevada dairy. In came Alex, his partner, straight from spraying the cornfield.  “What did you spray it with?” the gardener in me wondered.  “Roundup,” he replied matter-of-factly. “But won’t that harm the corn?” As far as I knew Roundup would penetrate every leaf it fell on, transferring its chemical to the roots, and then finally killing the plant. I had often seen it kill Bermuda grass in local gardens, the only method that has a hope of getting to those very persistent and deep roots.

“No, the corn will be fine,” Alex explained, “The corn seed is called ‘Roundup Ready’. It’s developed specially to resist Roundup.  Both the Roundup and the seed are from Monsanto and you have to buy the seed from them every year.”  For most farmers, it’s worth the extra expense to avoid having to cultivate and weed between the rows of corn.

Diverted beach goers watch a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis in the South Laguna Community Garden
Diverted beach goers watch a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis in the South Laguna Community Garden

col village monarch DSC_0329Now we’re learning that there are side effects to this method; one of them is the killing of too many weeds, milkweeds in particular. They are hosts for Monarch butterfly caterpillars.

Each of the four stages of the life cycle of Monarch butterflies—egg, caterpillar, pupae (chrysalis), and butterfly has particular needs, but the food of Monarch caterpillars is most specialized.  They eat only milkweed. Loss of milkweed means that a critical link in the insect’s life is missing.

Every year Monarch butterflies migrate hundreds of miles to spend the winter in mild climates. The migration is a phenomenon that occurs in two parts; Monarchs from the area east of the continental divide all the way to the Midwest migrate to central Mexico forests. Monarchs west of the divide find overwintering groves all along the coast of California. Over 25 major spots in California have been identified, from Bodega Bay to San Diego.

Now scientists have observed that the numbers of butterflies in the Mexican overwintering areas have diminished by 90%. This is attributed to the shrinking milkweed habitat and the illegal logging in the Mexican forests. California populations are declining also as shown in counts from 1997-2013 by the Monarch Program at sites statewide.

Locally, San Clemente and Doheny State Beaches are still viable locations where rangers report large Monarch numbers in the prime fall and winter months.


We have a historic Monarch overwintering spot right here in Laguna Beach. The large pine trees of Smithcliffs were a favorite place for clusters of Monarchs prior to the 1990s when the area was developed. Many of the trees were saved and relocated in hopes of preserving the Monarch habitat.  “It hasn’t worked,” according to neighbor Ed Merrillees. “We haven’t seen any of them.”  It’s not easy to disturb an area without disrupting the migration pattern.

Interestingly, nearby Monarch Beach, despite its name, was never butterfly habitat. The master planner of Laguna Niguel, the firm Victor Gruen and Associates, named Monarch Bay and Crown Valley Parkway, a nod to the English background of the founding company, according to Larry Lizotte, a board member of Moulton Niguel Water District, who was hired as chief engineer in 1965 for Cabot, Cabot and Forbes, which established the Laguna Niguel Corporation in 1959. The name had nothing to do with either butterflies or the King of Spain, which controlled California two centuries earlier.


Can we help?  On a small scale we can grow milkweed and plants that provide nectar for the butterflies.  We can learn and educate.

We can discourage the growing of “Roundup Ready” corn by not buying foods made of genetically modified grains.

On the broadest level we can concentrate on efficient living, making the least demand on the overall system, reducing the pressure to produce more and more.  We can contribute more than we take.

The Monarch is a symbol, a beautiful ambassador from the natural world, telling us to right what is amiss.


Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former member of the City Council.



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