For Pat Robinson Trapp the monarch butterfly is more than just a beautiful insect. This creature is the wondrous end product of a transformation process that likens itself to the life and death of all creatures, including humans.
“I love the butterfly itself but it is its life cycle process that really amazes me,” she said. “It has so many similarities to how humans transform throughout their lives.”
As a lifelong gardener, Pat had always been taken with the sheer beauty of these butterflies, but it was a dying hospice patient that inspired this kind and soft spoken woman to learn more about the creature. That’s when she connected the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly with a spiritual significance that was overwhelming. In fact, the connection was so strong for her, especially as a hospice volunteer, she was driven to bring that wonder and enlightenment to others and so began her journey as a cultivator of Monarch butterflies. “When you see one of these butterflies emerge from its chrysalis it changes you,” she said. “It is so amazing. I have never seen anyone watch the process and not be moved by it.”
Pat was raised in Milwaukee and came to the Northwoods to live as part of her training as an AODA counselor more than 30 years ago. She completed her training and worked as a counselor for most of her career. Then she decided to become a hospice volunteer, befriending those who were facing end-of-life situations. “Being a hospice volunteer is very rewarding for me,” she said. “I truly feel I get more from it than the patients do.”
It was a little more than 12 years ago that one of Pat’s patients asked her about the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly. “This lady was a gardener and one day she asked me about the Monarch,” said Pat. “I felt like it was my duty to find out for her and so I did some research.”
Pat started visiting local milkweed patches in the area. This plant is the primary source of food for the caterpillar form of the Monarch and the females seek out milkweeds to lay their eggs. On one visit Pat found a caterpillar and took it to the dying lady. They both watched the creature transform into a butterfly. “I saw how much this meant to my friend,” said Pat. “It really gave her a lot of strength to watch this process and it opened up a line of conversation where we could talk about life and death and transformation.”
Pat wanted to bring that sense of comfort to others, so she started experimenting with how she could “cultivate” Monarch cocoons on a more controlled basis. Her goal was to include them in floral arrangements and give them away to people who were facing the end of life. “I felt like it was a calling,” she said. “That this was something I could do to bring joy to others.”
Her first step was to attract the butterflies to her yard. Realizing that milkweeds are a crucial life link for the Monarch, Pat found a cultivar that is grown for perennial beds. “I bought a couple to see what would happen,” she said. It wasn’t long before a few potted plants grew into 100 which even today continue to line her driveway. Butterflies by the thousand visit Pat’s milkweed collection, laying their eggs twice a year among the leaves.
These butterflies are truly amazing. For instance they are the only insect that migrates and they come to the United States every year to reproduce. Females can have two or three broods of eggs in any given summer, depending on the weather. “This year they are really early because of the warm spring we had,” said Pat. The eggs are laid on milkweed plants and when they hatch they emerge as tiny caterpillars. The caterpillars eat the milkweed, growing longer every day. They are an attractive worm with white, yellow and black stripes. Once they reach their adult form they attach themselves to a sturdy structure and form into a chrysalis which is a rich emerald green with glittery gold dots. “What is amazing is the caterpillar is totally transformed,” said Pat. “It turns to liquid inside the cocoon but then metamorphosis’s into this beautiful butterfly.”
These creatures migrate in the fall to California and Mexico but only the broods that hatch in the autumn do this. The butterflies that are born in the spring and early summer die after about six weeks.
Once Pat realized the butterflies were using her plants to lay their eggs, she started to experiment on how she could enclose the plants so the caterpillars would transform into a cocoon under controlled conditions. After much trial and error she settled on a big tent. “My caterpillar home can sleep nine,” she chuckles. Her husband, David helps her carry the potted plants into the tent once the butterflies have laid their eggs.
The caterpillars form their cocoons all over the tent and then Pat must perform some delicate surgery to “harvest” them for her bouquets. First she carefully ties them off with a piece of thread and then gently scrapes the outer attachment site and winds the thread next to the cocoon. This gives her a delicate handle to attach a pipe cleaner with a piece of floral tape. “You have to have a lot of patience,” she said. “It’s very delicate work and can take a lot of time to accomplish.”
Once the cocoons are attached to the pipe cleaners, Pat uses flowers from her own gardens to make the floral arrangements for these emerald jewels. Each arrangement comes with instructions on what to do when the butterfly finally emerges, including setting it free. And in all the years she has been creating these unique arrangements, she has never charged a penny. “I just want people to have the experience of watching these beautiful transformations,” she said. “The process really has a profound effect on people.”
This year Pat will be donating her Butterfly Bouquets as a fundraiser for Dr. Kate’s Hospice in Woodruff. She has served as a spiritual counselor there and continues do to volunteer work through this organization. Bouquets are expected to be ready from mid-July until September, which means Pat is anticipating a very busy summer inside her tent.
“This is truly a labor of love for me,” she said. “I pray for the safety of every butterfly that goes out in one of these bouquets, and I pray for the person that is receiving it. It’s a way for me to touch others in a meaningful way. To show people that life is all about transformation.”
Editor’s note: To learn more about the butterfly bouquets or to order one call (800) 234-3542. To find out more about Pat’s Monarch butterfly project, visit her website at mymonarchminstry.com.