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12-year-old Dartmouth girl grows milkweed plants to help monarch butterflies

·3 min read
Once the plants start growing, Burchill moves the milkweed outside so they can get lots of sun.  (Emma Smith/CBC - image credit)
Once the plants start growing, Burchill moves the milkweed outside so they can get lots of sun. (Emma Smith/CBC - image credit)

A 12-year-old Dartmouth, N.S., girl is growing and giving away hundreds of milkweed plants so endangered monarch butterflies have somewhere safe to land.

Vanessa Burchill's quest to save the pollinators began about three years ago when her aunt showed her a chrysalis from her garden. She watched in wonder as a butterfly emerged and shook its wings dry.

She's now distributed roughly 1,000 swamp milkweed seedlings to people in the Halifax region through her Downtown Dartmouth Monarch Project. Her first batch this spring went in a matter of hours.

"It's very nice to see people who want to try and help the monarchs as well, and to know that it's not just us and a couple other people. It's quite a few people," Burchill told CBC Radio's Information Morning recently.

Why monarchs need milkweed

Monarch butterflies can't survive without milkweed because it's the only plant where they can lay their eggs.

Burchill grows swamp milkweed. It is far less unruly than common milkweed, its cousin.

Common milkweed is considered a noxious weed in Nova Scotia. People aren't supposed to plant it and it often gets sprayed with pesticides, which can be harmful to the butterflies.

This year, Burchill's growing season began in February with seeds from the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute.

She nurtures the crop inside at first under a three-tiered grow lamp she bought after receiving a grant from her local councillor.

As the weather warms up, she moves the delicate seedlings outside onto two vertical greenhouses on her back deck.

Emma Smith/CBC
Emma Smith/CBC

"Once you get the hang of it, they're pretty easy and fun to grow because once they sprout they grow really, really fast," Burchill said during an interview last summer.

Anyone can message her on Facebook to pick up a pot of milkweed for free from her front stoop. Each pot has four small plants that people are encouraged to put in a sunny spot at the edge of their gardens.

"When the monarchs finally emerge from the chrysalis they need to be able to dry out their wings in the sun and when the plant doesn't have full sun they can't do that," Burchill said.

Project sprouts community pollinator garden

In addition to growing several milkweed plants, Burchill's front and back yard are teeming with thistles, daisies and lilac bushes. Her pollinator-friendly garden is home to hummingbirds, salamanders and a family of starlings that recently took up residence.

"Me and my brother built a big birdhouse last year ... and I think the starling babies have just hatched," Burchill said. "You can hear them screaming all the time."

Emma Smith/CBC
Emma Smith/CBC

In 2019, Burchill's mom applied to have the family's yard certified by the Canadian Wildlife Federation as a wildlife friendly habitat.

"She didn't tell me about it when she did it because she didn't want me to feel sad if we got rejected, but we got it and then she surprised me with it," Burchill said.

Burchill has also started growing a community pollinator garden in the park across the street from her house with the help of neighbours.

Emma Smith/CBC
Emma Smith/CBC

"[We're] very proud of her and she's quite devoted to it," said her dad Nick Burchill.

"Hopefully, it will create a nice, sustainable pathway for monarchs."

Burchill has only seen a handful of monarchs visit her own yard and she's still waiting to spot a caterpillar chomping on the milkweed.

But she knows her efforts are paying off when she sees the endangered species visiting gardens she helped grow.

"We can't survive without pollinators and if no one does anything to help them then we can't help ourselves."

Emma Smith/CBC
Emma Smith/CBC

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