Butterfly gardener Bill Buerge’s eye is highly attuned to visual beauty.
Not all butterflies are Monarchs, but they are all among the crown jewels of nature. Bill Buerge has created a butterfly garden, a waystation where they flourish and show their colors to guests at The Mountain Mermaid, now one of Topangas latest bed and breakfasts, and soon a butterfly learning center.
In 1989, artist and illustrator Bill Buerge purchased the heaving ruins of a building in Cheney Canyon and named her The Mountain Mermaid. She was a wreck. Built in the 1930s, she was ready to unmoor from her tenuous foundation and slide down the hillside into the neglected swimming pool. If someone didnt see past her cracked facades, rotting timbers and rodent-infested walls, she was a goner. Buerge not only saw past her flaws, he was captivated by her history, her magnificent architecture and her location.
BY BILL BUERGE
A Monarch caterpillar feeds on a plant at The Mountain Mermaid’s butterfly
During the past 22 years, he has lovingly restored The Mermaids main structure to her former warmth and grandeur. In the process, he discovered that he had a huge passion for horticulture. What was once a trash-strewn lot is now a sun-dappled oasis.
The Mermaid has attracted internationally known photographers and celebrities and has been an intimate setting for weddings, community gatherings and special events. Most recently, Buerge has welcomed couples seeking a romantic bed and breakfast getaway. By far, though, the most beautiful guests at The Mermaid are winged, wild and often endangered. They are butterflies.
Everything I have ever done has been predominately visual. Painting, illustrating, graphic design, architecture, Buerge says. Butterflies, if anything, are visually stunning and a butterfly garden brings together a number of my favorite things butterflies, gardening, and working with my eyes.
His interest in butterflies started when he was young. I have always been fascinated by them their beauty, their innocence, their amazing life cycle. As a kid, I chased and collected and reared butterflies.
PHOTO BY BILL BUERGE
Inside a mesh enclosure that protects the insects from predators, such as ants, rats and birds, Monarch pupae hang from the top in various stages of their typical 12-day gestation period. They begin a light emerald green color and turn black when they are almost ready to hatch into butterflies. The white transparent ones are empty casings. An adult female Monarch (center ) will use its proboscis to drink nectar from a flowering Lantana plant.
I would get Swallowtail caterpillars off of the Anise plants on the way home from school at Palisades Elementary, put them in a box, feed them and raise them to adulthood.
Over the past year, Buerge has reacquainted himself with butterflies by immersing himself in learning through books, websites, intensive seminars, online groups and by meeting other butterfly gardeners.
Within The Mermaids gardens, full of California natives, succulents, cannas, birds of paradise, grasses and palms, there are also several kinds of milkweed, lantana, sedum and many other plants that Buerge grows specifically to attract butterflies. [[swallowtailbutterfly.jpg]
The single most important thing if you want to have serious butterflies in your garden is to plant butterfly host or nectar plants. Most butterflies will nectar, or feed on a lot of different kinds of flowers, ]but when it comes to laying their eggs, they are extremely particular, he says. They will only lay eggs on plants that their caterpillars will eat. Monarch caterpillars will only eat milkweed. Adult Monarch butterflies, however, will drink nectar from just about any plant that has nectar in its flowers and a suitable landing pad.
The Monarchs orange and black coloring is familiar, even iconic, in the butterfly world, but its numbers are rapidly declining.
PHOTO BY BILL BUERGE
Patrick and Patricia Pena of Las Vegas, Nevada enjoyed the unexpected surprise of Monarch butterflies in the garden when they stayed in one of the three artfully appointed guest rooms of The Mountain Mermaid’s bed and breakfast.
We see butterflies at the Mermaid most of the time. Recently I witnessed a breathtaking spectacle of four big Western Swallowtails all crowded together in the space of a few square feet drinking from our milkweed. But, I have seen only one Monarch this whole year. So, we have been focusing recently on rearing them on site. The other day we released about twenty Monarchs born and bred at the Mermaid, and they have been in our garden ever since.
The Mermaid is now 1 of 4,000 Monarch Waystations across North America that support their annual fall migration.
According to MonarchWatch.org, Monarch Waystations provide resources necessary for Monarchs to produce successive generations and sustain their migration. Without milkweeds throughout their spring and summer breeding areas in North America, Monarchs would not be able to produce the successive generations that culminate in the migration each fall. Similarly, without nectar from flowers these fall migratory Monarch butterflies would be unable to make their long journey to overwintering grounds in Mexico. The need for host plants for larvae and energy sources for adults applies to all Monarch and butterfly populations around the world.
The Monarch is the only butterfly that migrates long distances (up to 3,000 miles), like whales and birds. Monarchs find overwintering sites where they hibernate, congregating together in trees, such as eucalyptus and pine. From the U.S. and Canada, as many as one hundred million Monarchs will fly in the fall to California and Mexico to wait out the cold winter months. There are overwintering sites up and down the California coast, including Monterey, Santa Barbara, Ramirez Canyon in Malibu, Santa Monica and Long Beach.
A male Monarch butterfly nectaring on a flowering bougainvillea is a feast for the eyes. Males are distinguished from females by two black spots on their hind wings.
Only the fourth or fifth generation migrates. In the first few generations, the adult butterfly lives about three weeks, focused on reproduction. The fourth or fifth generation lives eight months and will make the long migratory journey. Why this cycle happens remains a mystery to researchers.
What is not a mystery is that the Monarch population is gravely threatened by development, widespread use of herbicides, such as Round Up® for roadside management and on genetically modified crops. The loss is not limited to Monarchs.
Anise Swallowtail caterpillars, which love to eat Anise leaves, are hardly found along Topanga Canyon Boulevard anymore, even though the plant grows in profusion. Buerge has stopped his car countless times, searching for them and has found none.
Buerge laments this situation. I am saddened by the fact that they are disappearing like the bees and the frogs. They are an indicator species. Like the canary in the coal mine, their demise portends a larger collapse of the natural world as we know it. I am alarmed and want to help if I can. I am not the only one concerned. Individuals and organizations all around the world are coming to their rescue with butterfly plant propagation and captive breeding programs.
PHOTO BY BILL BUERGE
Monarch butterflies inside a rearing enclosure drink nectar from a flowering Sedum. Milkweed leaves (in left side of photo) are from a potted plant, also in the enclosure, upon which “gravid” females, those that have successfully paired with the males, will lay their eggs.
Anyone can grow a butterfly garden. Whether you have an estate or a windowsill, all you need are the right plants to attract butterflies and witness the wonder of metamorphosis.
As a bed and breakfast, The Mermaid will sometimes host guests of its sister B&B, Tuscali Mountain Inn, when there is overflow, or simply to provide guests with a different Topanga experience, such as the pool and butterfly gardens.
Beyond everything that The Mermaid has become, Buerges vision is for it to serve as a teaching center for butterfly lovers of all ages; it is a certified Monarch Waystation. Its a way to contribute not only to the health of butterflies, but to humans as well. Humans are drawn to beauty and I think we have a spiritual connection to butterflies, he says.
They have existed for more than 50 million years. From egg to chrysalis to adult, butterflies vividly illustrate the delicate mysteries of life.