The Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail

The Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail is a program inspired by the late Rosalynn Carter to increase the habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Though the organization began in Plains, Georgia, it has expanded across the United States and even includes gardens in Mexico, Canada, and even Japan.

Dr. Jacobus (Jaap) De Roode, a Samuel C. Dobbs Professor in the Emory Department of Biology and Directors on the Board of the Butterfly Trail, spoke on the origins of the Butterfly Trail. Jaap De Roode had conducted research into monarch butterfly ecology, studying monarch butterfly migration and parasite transmission. His knowledge, as well as many others on Emory’s campus, would be sought out by former president Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter would host Emory campus lunches to talk with professors, researchers, and others with specialized knowledge. It was during one of these meetings that De Roode first heard about Rosalynn Carter’s interest in monarch butterflies.

“The idea of the butterfly trail is to recreate native habitat to support butterflies and other pollinators,” he says.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter was the impetus for these butterfly gardens that would make up the trail. Rosalynn Carter’s desire to create a butterfly garden came from her deep concern for the struggling monarch butterfly population and their threatened migration from North America to Mexico. She started planting the right native plants in Plains, Georgia after conferring with her neighbor and friend Annette Wise. Starting with a single garden, Wise helped Mrs. Carter to create multiple gardens throughout Plains and connect them as a trail. At present, the trail has grown to include over four thousand gardens, mostly in the United States

The size of these gardens can vary from just a few potted plants on a balcony to a spiraling field of milkweed, marigolds, black-eyed Susans, and cardinal flowers. These plants attract the gorgeous pollinators that frequent the gardens.

De Roode commented on how the monarch butterfly became the symbol for these pollinator gardens.

“The monarch butterfly is seen as the ambassador of the garden because of its beauty. They help stand for the other unfamiliar pollinators.”

Similar to the way the World Wildlife Fund uses the panda as a symbol for endangered species because of its charismatic appearance, so does the monarch butterfly’s beauty generate support for lesser-appreciated pollinators–moths, beetles, and certain species of mosquitoes.

The Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail provides advice on nectar plants (flowers) as a butterfly food source and host plants such as milkweed or parsley on which butterflies can lay their eggs. The organization can also work with you to establish a brand-new garden. This includes helping you find native plants, such as milkweed and seed mixes.

To help people establish their gardens, Erik Edwards, manager of the Department of Biology’s greenhouse and Educational Garden Project Coordinator for the Office of Sustainability Initiatives, has been growing plants for the Butterfly Trail for over three years. With around 70 local people on a plant list registry, there remains a great demand for these pollinator plants.

De Roode explained how one of the greatest parts of the program was seeing how easy it was for people to get excited about nature. He noted a special moment when establishing the garden at the Carter Center for former President Carter’s 90th birthday.

“It was nice to see so many people help out: Trees Atlanta, Emory students, young children, retirees, and more. It is exciting to see that so many different people care about nature and want to be part of restoring it.

Witnessing fourth graders putting plants on their heads—as happened recently when establishing a new garden at Mary Lin Elementary School in Candler Park—and the general excitement people have about the gardens can be as beautiful as the gardens themselves.

If you want to start your own pollinator garden, De Roode has some sage advice.

“Start small and simple. Be patient. You need to have a long-term vision. It takes a few years to build a lush and beautiful garden.”

Like with most things, time and patience is a key factor in establishing a successful pollinator garden. Planting perennials is a good start as they come back every year as opposed to annuals that grow for only one season. For more advice on how to start your own pollinator garden, please visit the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail website and look through their “Your Butterfly Garden Section”.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the great work of the late Rosalynn Carter, a globally renowned champion for social justice, mental health, and human rights. De Roode spoke on the influence Rosalynn Carter’s legacy and spirit have over the growth and future of the butterfly trail.

“We had a former first lady, which really helped with our trail. She had spent her whole life helping others. And here she was, extending her help to pollinators. It is nice to continue in her honor and think of who she was and take forward that idea that we can make a difference by working together. Any small garden is work in the right direction. The more gardens we have, the more nature we create.”

To learn more about the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail, click here. To learn more about the pollinator gardens on Emory’s campus and our Pollinator Protection Program, click here.

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