Monarch butterflies are seriously picky eaters.
In caterpillar form, they can only survive by eating the leaves of milkweed plant. As adults, they can only lay eggs on milkweed leaves. They’re pretty much in a monogamous relationship with the otherwise unloved plant, which has fallen victim to increased pesticide use in recent decades.
Which is why, come next spring, you’re likely to see a lot more milkweed plants sprouting up around Buffalo, thanks in part to a public art project designed to boost the endangered monarch population that migrates through here each spring and fall.
The project, called “Milkweed Dispersal Balloons,” is the brainchild of Chicago-based artist Jenny Kendler. The concept is simple: Kendler has filled hundreds of biodegradable balloons with milkweed seeds.
She had planned to distribute them Saturday in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in concert with an event celebrating the launch of the gallery’s new “ArtGames 2.0” smartphone app, but her visit has been delayed until July 10-12 because her flight to Buffalo was canceled due to bad weather.
When the seeds are distributed, people will then take the balloons to their yards or any other outdoor area and pop them, dispersing the fluffy seeds into the air and ideally producing several new plants in time for the next migration.
The project, which Kendler describes as “open-source,” will then be repeated by other groups during the rest of the summer and into the fall.
Kendler’s visit, sponsored by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and part of its expanding collection of innovative public art initiatives, will be followed by the August launch of another project aimed at transforming the natural landscape of Buffalo. With “Rewilding New York (Community Seed Stations),” Kendler and the Albright-Knox have devised a system to freely distribute of 11 varieties of wildflowers to Western New Yorkers in hopes their yards and gardens will contain more native species friendly to pollinators.
The seeds will be placed in newspaper honor boxes donated by The Buffalo News and decorated by Kendler, which will be strategically positioned throughout the area to encourage wide distribution of the seeds. According to the gallery, there will be a heavy concentration of the boxes on the East Side.
For Kendler, who is the artist-in-residence with the National Resources Defense Council, the milkweed project emerged from a childhood interest in monarch butterflies and from her discovery in recent years that pesticide use was destroying their sole source of food. As a result, up to 90 percent of the monarch population had simply died off.
“How could this enormous, permanent feature of the landscape possibly be disappearing so quickly?” Kendler recalled herself asking when she learned of the crisis. Her solution was to devise a user-friendly way of getting milkweed seeds into the hands of as many people as possible, which she has successfully deployed in St. Louis and elsewhere.
While many people pull milkweed plants out of their gardens or regard it as a pesky presence among their marigolds and azaleas, Kendler is urging people to reconsider the plant as an essential part of any urban garden. And though the statement she is making is the most important part of her project, she said she expects it to have a tangible effect on the monarch population.
“They are pretty. They can seem kind of gawky and gangly, but when they bloom they really do have these beautiful pink flowers,” she said. “I think that raising people’s awareness about planting milkweed, and for example not pulling it out of their gardens and voluntarily planting it, will have an absolutely huge, measurable effect. The project itself, I haven’t done any metrics to see, but ostensibly there are tens of thousands of seeds we’re releasing, so assuming that even a small proportion of those germinate, I think it’s important.”
As for the wildflower project, Kendler said she is attempting to foster “a cultural reset about the idea of weeds.”
“Weed really is a human idea; it means a plant that grows where we don’t want it to grow. It doesn’t mean that it’s not a beautiful plant, it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be a magnificent part of a garden,” she said. “You can think about actually evoking your sense of place and your rootedness in your environment by using native plants, which tend to use a little bit less water and do really well in the environment and so can be extraordinarily healthy and beautiful.”
Albright-Knox public art curator Aaron Ott, who has overseen public art projects like “Shark Girl,” “Silent Poets” and Shayne Dark’s sculptures at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, said Kendler’s project fits into Buffalo’s garden culture. He said the city’s gardening community, which he consulted for the initiative, has embraced Kendler’s ideas.
“If there is no milkweed, there are no monarchs. It is that simple. And certainly gardeners have sympathies with pollinators. If they don’t have butterflies and bees and even hummingbirds attracted to their gardens, their gardens fail,” Ott said. “Those are the same people who are going to turn up their nose at something like Roundup, which is the culprit here for a lot of milkweed dying.”
Whether by popping a balloon full of milkweed seeds or planting a species of wildflower in your backyard garden, Kendler said, “you’re creating real, viable habitats, especially for pollinators, for bees, butterflies and moths. This means that they can live in the places that we live too, because the earth is not just ours.”