At 72, Ward Johnson sometimes puts in 12-hour days in the gardens of his Edina home.

But it isn’t just the vibrant flora that flourishes in his curated yard that keeps him busy. Johnson has set himself to work on strengthening the dwindling monarch butterfly population by planting milkweed and by encouraging others to do so as well.

“I’ve been watching the decline of the monarch population over the last 20 years, and it’s just devastating,” Johnson said.

The Save Our Monarchs Foundation was a long-germinating seed that, according to Johnson, burst forth upon waking in mid-March of this year. He quickly got to work on creating the nonprofit organization, of which he is now executive director. It’s the only U.S. foundation whose sole mission is to save the monarch butterfly by planting more milkweed, the sole sustenance of the monarch caterpillar.

In the past two months Johnson has started partnerships with Bachman’s, Sunnyside Gardens, the Linden Hills Co-op and others to help distribute milkweed seeds. Johnson also recently signed an agreement with the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen to offer milkweed seeds during educational classes and membership drives as well as in its gift shop.

“We’re really excited about the alliance we’ve formed,” said the arboretum’s director, Ed Schneider.

The arboretum is working to raise awareness of the monarch issue through its educational classes, said arboretum spokeswoman Barb DeGroot. It’s also showcasing an exhibit called “Butterflies: Beauty in Flight” at the Snyder Building’s Conservatory through Aug. 17.

“There’s a lot of people working on the problem, and we’re just working on one part of it,” said Johnson, whose career has been spent in operating small technology companies. “We’re just a small group of people trying to get a lot done.”

A host of perils

Not merely pretty to look at, the orange and black butterflies are prolific pollinators of flowers and crops alike, aiding in the growth of back-yard gardens and commercial agriculture.

“It’s a very complex problem that we’re faced with because it’s not just the decline [in monarch numbers],” Johnson said.

Pesticide and herbicide use has diminished the availability of milkweed, and logging in the south-central area of Mexico has felled many of the oyamel fir trees monarchs take as their overwintering homes.

The area inhabited by the monarch during winter months has fallen by 97 percent from its 1996-97 high point of 51.8 acres: In the 2012-13 winter, monarchs were found in only 1.6 acres, the smallest area since the World Wildlife Fund and Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve began collecting data on nine monarch colonies in 1994.

Save Our Monarchs distinguishes itself from many of the organizations it has partnered with by focusing on only one part of the issue — milkweed availability.

“We’re trying to simplify the message; we’re trying to make it really easy for people to understand,” said Maria Verven, who is also involved in the project. “We’re kind of trying to cut through all the clutter and say: Here’s a simple solution.”

‘One plant at a time’

Though poisonous to humans, the “milk” of the milkweed plant provides all of the nutrition that monarch caterpillars need. The caterpillars, banded in yellow, black and white stripes, can mow through 20 to 25 of the milkweed leaves in the two weeks before entering the pupae stage.

“They go through a lot of them, so that’s the reason why we’re giving away all of these milkweed seeds — is to try to get people to plant them in their gardens and to try to get them to grow in every part of the U.S. that we can,” Johnson said. “And it’s not an easy task; it’s probably a five-year task to get it all done.”

The evidence of his past 48 hours’ work of sorting seeds into small envelopes, Johnson brushes several milkweed seeds from the table back into a small box. A newly arrived seed packet display sits arm’s length away; Johnson had dropped off one such display at Sunnyside Gardens earlier in the day.

Johnson said he has a one-year goal of distributing 100,000 seed packets, each containing between 12 and 15 seeds, to gardeners, nurseries and arboretums around the United States.

“My real goal is a million,” he said. “We do it one plant at a time.”

 

Elizabeth Hustad is a University of Minnesota student and freelance writer.