Sunday, 22 October 2017

Milkweed & Monarchs - a journey of discovery

I have been on my travels to the sunny state of California to attend the ASBA (American Society of Botanical Artists) conference in San Francisco.

That was a fantastic experience spreading my wings in the global family of botanical art.

Not only that I had a few days after the conference to visit an amazing artist and friend, Elizabeth Romanini of The Natural Line.

There was the wonderful opportunity to explore the area where she lives and discover some treasures of the natural world.

In the wildlife friendly garden that her and her husband have created it is full of visiting birds, including several species of Hummingbirds.

 There is also an array of plants still flowering in the warmer than usual October sunshine.  I was attracted to one plant by its seedpods, and also didn't recognise the plant and its other features.

I then discovered that it is a variety of Milkweed, an important plant in the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly (more on that in a while).

The seedpods provided me with the perfect subject to start a new sketchbook and get my pencils moving again after the positive intensity of attending the conference.

My normal graphite pencils were used, initially a 2H and then moving onto the H grade.  When I am composing line drawings, I do like to include tonal variation within a line.  It helps to give more depth to the line drawing without having to apply continuous tonal shading.  The H pencil is ideal for adding some darker tonal values to the lines as it is slightly softer than the 2H, without being too soft that it smudges or sheds too much graphite.

One of the possible trips was to visit some Monarch butterflies at a local state park on the coast - Natural Bridges State Park.  This was perfect as I had often admired illustrations of the Monarch, particularly those created by Betsy Rogers Knox who exhibited these illustrations of Milkweed and Monarchs at the RHS in 2016.

I don't really know what my expectations were at the time, as I hadn't had the chance to read-up on the butterfly's journey within its life-cycle.

When we arrived at the state park there was an area giving examples of ideal food plants for the Monarchs including Milkweed of various varieties, including African milkweed.  We walked along the boardwalk into a wooded area and then I was faced with one of the most amazing spectacles that I have ever seen in the natural world. 

CLOUDS of butterflies hanging onto the leaves and branches of the surrounding Eucalyptus trees.

The State Park's website explains perfectly why the Monarchs visit and stay there over the winter months:

'The park's Monarch Grove provides a temporary home for thousands of Monarchs. In 2016, 8,000 Monarch Butterflies overwintered at Natural Bridges. From late fall into winter, the Monarchs form a "city in the trees." The area's mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring.

In the spring and summer, the butterflies live in the valley regions west of the Rocky Mountains where the monarch's companion plant, milkweed, is found. For most of the year, where there are monarchs, there are also milkweed plants. Monarchs drink nectar from milkweed flowers, and female monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed leaves. Milkweed contains a toxin that, when ingested by the caterpillar, makes it toxic to other animals. These toxins remain in the butterfly as well, providing protection from predators that would otherwise eat the monarchs'. 

 So when I was seeing them, they hadn't even reached peak numbers !  It was still so fantastic to see.  The grove was quite shaded when we visited, but occasionally the sun would peak through on some of the trees and the butterflies would then become more active and their bright orange wings would gleam in the sunshine.

'Migration is variable and numbers and dates are different each year. The monarchs typically begin arriving in mid-October and leave by mid-February  (In 2013 and 2016, the monarchs had left by January). At Natural Bridges, November is often the best time to for a walk to observe the monarchs. The Monarch Grove has been declared a Natural Preserve, thus protecting these butterflies and their winter habitat from human encroachment or harm. This is the only State Monarch Preserve in California.

The grove contains eucalyptus trees which are located in a gently sloping canyon, providing the Monarch needed shelter from the wind. These winter-flowering trees are also a convenient food source for the butterfly. On chilly days when the temperature drops below 60 degrees, the butterflies cluster together in the eucalyptus trees for warmth'.

Monarch butterflies becoming more active in the Fall sunshine

Feeding on nectar from a cultivated variety of Scabious (left) and the nectar rich flowers of Ivy (right)

African milkweed seedpods


  • I am taking a break this term from my weekly course at Peter Symonds College AHED, but courses will return to normal in January 2018.
  •  The second part of my online course will be making its debut soon.  Drawing Nature - Part 2 will focus on structured drawing techniques.  The course is suitable for all levels of experience using graphite pencils as a drawing tool.  For more information see the Illustrating Natures Details tuition website.
  • I have a new gallery style website, which I have been working on over the last 9 months.  It certainly was a relief when the task was completed and will hopefully be an improved place to showcase my artwork.  Click here for the Natures Details website