Depending on the season, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge hosts a myriad of natural treasures to view, from soaring and nesting eagles to a variety of migrating waterfowl.
From mid-September through early October, among the main attractions are embattled monarch butterflies. The monarchs flutter across our region in the midst of making their remarkable fall trek south to Mexico. Fortunately for the legendary golden winged travelers who need nectar to sip, and their legion of admirers who savor seeing them, however fleetingly, Blackwater provides a superb garden spot tucked behind the Visitors Center.
The Butterfly and Beneficial Insect Garden was brought to life through a collaborative effort between the Dorchester Garden Club, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and the Friends of Blackwater NWR.
The Garden Club raised the initial $90 K which went towards construction of the design by George Corey, owner of Wye Tree Landscapers, Inc., and a striking bronze monarch butterfly sculpture titled Monarchs (Dannaus plexippus), crafted by twin brothers, Steven and Stewart Wegner, at their Fredericksburg, Virginia foundry, Wegner Metal Arts Inc., specializing in artistic wildlife renderings.
Ground was broken for the garden in 2001 and in May 2002 it was dedicated, with special tribute to long standing garden club member Kathryne (Kit) Carlon Holdt, lauded as “Miss Butterfly” during ensuing Blackwater Spring Fling celebrations, according to Rick Abend, Friends Board President.
In 1997 Holdt stepped up to serve as the National Garden Club’s Maryland Chairperson for the Butterfly Garden at the National Botanic Garden in Washington, DC. Through these efforts, she is credited with raising local awareness of the need for butterfly and beneficial insect conservation, according to a Butterflies at Blackwater brochure.
DGC President Chris Wilke added:
“The Dorchester Garden Club has created this garden, at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, to express its appreciation of Kit and to serve as a lasting centerpiece to our commitment to the art of gardening and our awareness of environmental concerns. For many, there are few pleasures in life that rival those found in the time spent in a garden. The butterfly garden in particular fosters an awareness of the interdependences between plants, animals and humanity. As a profound symbol of transformation and restoration, the butterfly offers hope that affirmative change is possible and is at work in our own lives. It is our hope that this endeavor will encourage visitors to establish small butterfly habitats in their gardens and understand that we can effect positive ecological change with remedial action taken in our own backyards.”
This idea resonated with Rhonda Franz-Floyd, a relative newcomer among the garden’s many dedicated volunteers, now with over a year of service there. She finds aesthetic enjoyment in the native plant landscape and gets satisfaction from giving back. But she’s especially gratified to gain recurring hands-on experience, learning to apply best practices to the home pollinator garden she’s creating in Trappe. She’s also glad to pay what she learns forward to others, in essence, helping grow the next generation of conservation minded gardeners.
Recently retired and relocating here from Severna Park with her husband, also a Blackwater volunteer, it’s a labor of love for Franz-Floyd who carefully weeds, selectively moves plants, and gathers seeds in mesh sachets. She’s been getting to learn which plants are the best and worst performers. Though eager to do it all, Franz-Floyd has heeded guidance to focus on becoming familiar with the growing stages of one or two types of weeds and plants at a time.
She’s grateful to experienced volunteers who have answered her questions and served as mentors, among them Jane Sebring, who has been a major force in maintaining the garden week in and week out from March through October since 2013, according to Michele Whitbeck, Volunteer Coordinator for Chesapeake Marshlands NWR Complex.
Whitbeck can’t say enough about the group’s “arduous work, dedication, and commitment,” calling the volunteers “the heart of the butterfly garden.” Their work was especially vital last March following the long Covid closure and safety protocols which paused not only visitors but volunteers from gathering on the grounds. Once back, the resumed tending brought about a relatively quick return to glory, according to Franz-Floyd, an encouraging sign for visitors struggling to get their own grounds back on track.
When asked about monarchs visiting the garden, Whitbeck recommended checking this site, noting that Cambridge falls roughly within the 38th latitude. (More information on the monarch migration can be found here.)
Whitbeck explained that the Butterfly and Beneficial Insect Garden is so named because it include pollinators like bees, butterflies, flies and moths, which pollinate flowers, and also predatory insects, which help control pests like aphids. While monarchs might get most of the attention, addition butterflies commonly observed there include black swallowtail, eastern tiger swallowtail, red admiral, common buckeye, pearl crescent, eastern tailed blue, red-spotted purple, and clouded sulphur. Refuge website and social media guru Lisa Mayo added the reminder to be on the lookout for toads, dragonflies, hummingbirds and a host of other critters.
(The refuge also hosts a separate Pollinator Sanctuary area.)
In 2015, while surveying bee species at Blackwater, USGS biologist Sam Droege of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center recorded the discovery of a new Maryland species, Triepeolus concavus, known to be a nest parasite of another bee species observed in the garden, Svastra obliqua. According to Droege, Svastra obliqua is associated with high-quality habitat.
Certified Bay Wise by the Master Gardeners program in 2006, the garden was revamped in 2014 after a three-year Visitor Center construction project. Most recently, The Friends of Blackwater received a $9250 in 2016 through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to expand the garden with a walkway to the new West Wing of the VC, new native species plants, signage and rain barrels, along with improved drainage. Since the initial construction, the Friends of Blackwater has been providing funds for the annual maintenance of the garden by Refuge volunteers, according to Amend.
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