BLOOMFIELD, NJ--Walking through Watsessing Park on a hot day in mid-July a warm breeze carries a fluttering monarch across your path. As you follow its vibrant orange wings with black spots it leads you through the trees and past the newly renovated Essex County Lawn Bowling facility where you will find the Friends of Watsessing Park Conservancy’s Butterfly Garden.
The garden is bursting with blooming vegetation attracting pollinators of every kind. Bumblebees and honeybees buzz and butterflies swirl around pollinator plants that include the golden Alexander, Joe Pye weed, bluewood aster and three varieties of milkweed native to New Jersey amongst other flowering plants. The most common plant in the garden is milkweed, the only plant on which monarch butterflies lay their eggs and provides the food for caterpillars to feed and grow.
The Watsessing Park Butterfly Garden is now in its 4th season. Each year the garden has expanded and increased its variety of plant life. The Conservancy started the garden in order to provide a habitat for monarch butterflies, whose population has been in steep decline in recent years. The gardens primary caretakers are Richard and Susan Moseson, who have led the effort by cultivating milkweed, planting, watering and tending to the garden throughout the season. The Mosesons noted that this year, although the monarchs arrived late (mid-July instead of June), they saw many monarchs passing through and females laying eggs, which hatched into caterpillars. The garden had over 100 caterpillars and roughly 50 butterflies from the hundreds of eggs laid in July, August and early September. Many parts of the northeast reported smaller-than-usual numbers of monarchs this summer, but the Watsessing Park Butterfly Garden was fortunate to have quite a large number for a garden of its size.
The Conservancy enjoys maintaining the garden because it provides visitors an opportunity to watch monarchs "up close and personal," including females laying eggs, caterpillars eating and building their chrysalis, and butterflies emerging (enclosing) from their chrysalis. In addition, volunteers working at the garden routinely provide informal in-person education to park visitors (following social distancing guidelines). Butterfly species observed at the garden this year, in addition to monarchs, included tiger swallowtails (the NJ state butterfly), black swallowtails, red admirals, buckeyes, hairstreaks, cabbage whites, yellow sulphurs, painted ladies, several varieties of skippers (a cross between a butterfly and a moth), and others. The Conservancy hopes that everyone enjoys the garden but asks that visitors don’t take anything from the garden including flowers, bees, butterflies or caterpillars.
“I love to visit the garden every season to observe the beautiful butterflies and bees in their natural environment” said Conservancy President Jenni Gamble. “I’m always amazed by the hard work and dedication of the Mosesons and all of our volunteers who help care for this unique garden.”
This year, the Friends of Watsessing Park Conservancy increased participation in several citizen science programs. The garden remains certified by the North American Butterfly Association; monarch sightings are regularly reported to Journeynorth.org, a major citizen science organization; the garden is on the Monarch Conservation Efforts map maintained by Monarch Joint Venture, a coalition of some 85 public and private organizations dedicated to the survival of monarch butterflies; and this year, provided data about the Watsessing Park Butterfly Garden that will be used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it determines whether the monarch butterfly should be added to the endangered species list (a decision is expected in December). The garden also served as a focal point for distributing milkweed plants transplanted from a local construction site. In coordination with the Bloomfield Environmental Commission the Conservancy was able to distribute 35 milkweed plants that would go on to host several more monarch caterpillars and butterflies.
As the leaves changes colors and begin to fall the garden continues to provide food and shelter for monarchs traveling to overwintering grounds in Mexico during the fall migration. In the spring, the Conservancy will be back to work planting and preparing the garden for another season and look forward to seeing butterflies and visitors in the park.