By Kiesa Kay
Eight years ago, I planted a little stick in the ground — a buddleia, the beginning of a butterfly bush. That butterfly bush has grown as tall as the house, and it spreads at least eight feet wide. Today, dozens of black butterflies alight on its purple flowers, nuzzling nectar. The five little stick bushes that I planted this year have a few flowers each, except for one that grew brown and dry, succumbing.
When we plant a garden, we never know for sure what will survive. Rain, drought, fires — as any farmer knows, we can strengthen soil with compost and natural fertilizer and water, but elements beyond our control will decide whether all our work brings dancing life or crunchy death.
Even if air, water, nutrients, and soil stayed strong, without pollinators, many plants would cease to exist. More than 80 percent of our flowering plants need pollinators to propagate properly. North Carolina’s blessed with 500 varieties of bees and 175 species of butterflies, including our state butterfly, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.
In 2014, a group of intrepid volunteers got permission from the county and the parks and recreation department to plant a pollinator garden at Cane River Park in Yancey County, North Carolina, hoping against hope that birds and bees and butterflies would find those plants, be nourished, and bring abundance. Pollinator gardens lack the manicured, well-regulated look of other gardens. In order to be what they need to be — places of fecund delight for insects and birds — they must maintain an essential wildness. Some bumble bees prefer violet colored plants, and monarch butterflies love milkweed. The garden was created to appeal to the pollinators, not the people.
The Cane River Park pollinator garden featured mainly North Carolina native plants. Purple joe pye weed, purple cone flowers, and yellow black-eyed susans flourished in the sun, along with asters and ironweed. Even when the entire park flooded in 2018, that pollinator garden remained pristine. The cooperative extension office helped, and a group of students in 4-H. In the first year, a cover crop of buckwheat helped fill the spaces between the plants, but soon they grew strong, free, and beautiful.
Community leadership changed hands, and priorities for the park changed focus in the next eight years. In 2022, a decision was made to re-purpose the land, possibly for sports or a dog park, and this homemade and community-built Eden evaporated. Seen by some folks as weeds, the plants in the pollinator garden got sprayed hard with herbicides. The once green plants blackened and died, dissolving into dirt. Some of us local gardeners were aghast, wishing we’d known in advance so we could have dug up those plants and moved them — and after outreach, the head of the Parks Department agreed to let the remaining shrubs be moved in the fall, letting us save something. He had meant no harm. No one involved had meant any harm at all. The pollinator garden became collateral damage in a surge for a different kind of progress.
This unseasonal death creates a search for meaning from the loss. Planning and creating a pollinator garden is a first step. Someone has to maintain that garden — not for a season, or a year, but into perpetuity. On public lands, when governmental officials and employees change, each new group must be educated as to why pollinators matter and why the garden looks as wild and free as it must be in order to sustain life.
The gardeners involved in the Cane River Park project cared about the pollinators and plants. They had no political aspirations, no desire to be in charge of vast swaths of land or big budgets. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Sometimes those of us with the most wildness within us have the least desire to meet and talk in conference rooms. It takes a whole new way of thinking and being to bring us beyond gardens and daily maintenance, into the political arena that protects public places. Each generation learns anew.
The bitterness of seeing the blackened remains of a garden after years of work can be mitigated by knowing the pleasure that many creatures had from that place. Yes, it vanished, and yet a thing of beauty is a joy forever even after that thing itself disappears, because the memory remains. Many generations of bees and butterflies have enjoyed that garden, and baby bluebirds thrived in the nests. We can’t save everything all the time — but we can plant butterfly bushes, and viburnum, and continue to feed the pollinators that nurture the nature that sustains us. And after destruction happens, we can rise up and plant again.