Environmental artist creates urban butterfly garden

In the fall of 2008, landscape artist Karen Abel (BES ’03, MES ’06) planted native seeds and installed 60 cast-stone spheres to attract migrating monarch butterflies to the grounds of the Ontario Science Centre.

The Ontario Science Centre had invited Abel to create a living art installation in its Teluscape park, dominated by stainless steel structures – interactive water mazes, musical fountains and cellphone-activated illuminated metal trees. For a park whose theme was interaction with the outdoors, “it needed more spaces where nature could thrive,” says the environmental artist.

Right: Purple dense blazing star, coneflowers and milkweed in the Migration Garden for monarch butterflies at the Ontario Science Centre. Photo by Karen Abel.

Inspired by the release of monarch butterflies at the park’s grand opening, she turned the narrow, long strip of dirt overgrown with non-native species into a habitat "stepping stone" where monarchs could rest, feed and bask along their migratory route. She would lure them with native wildflowers whose nectar they couldn’t resist.

The following spring, shoots poked through the mulch. By July, spires of dense blazing star, Culver’s root and pale purple coneflower swayed over plump masses of swamp and butterfly milkweed, the host plant for monarch caterpillars. Would the butterflies come?

They did! Monarchs – and bees – spotted their favourite plants and stopped to feast and lay eggs. By August, caterpillars had hatched from eggs and were crawling over the milkweed.

Art and nature are Abel’s twin passions. As an undergraduate at York, she earned a degree in environmental studies with a minor in art.

Left: Monarch feeds on swamp milkweed. Photo by Karen Abel.

She makes her living as an environmental consultant who specializes in land and wildlife conservation. As an environmental artist, she has also designed a tallgrass prairie garden in collaboration with the Walpole Island First Nation in 2005.

“I aim to create public art that provides urban wildlife habitat while inspiring people to value biodiversity and natural heritage as a vital part of their communities,” says Abel. Her environmental art projects can take a couple of years because they often require collaboration with organizations and communities, applying for funding (this one received Ontario Arts Council support) and then doing the work itself.

Where is the art in the migration garden project? Abel infuses meaning into every aspect of the design. The orientation of the bed – north-south – reflects the migratory route of the monarch. The northern portion of the garden represents southern Canada and the United States and the southern tip – indicated by the bright yellow goldenrod – represents Mexico, blooming in the fall to mark the beginning of the migratory period.

Teluscape park’s spires and spheres, Abel says, are mirrored in the garden’s shapes – the tall candle-like blossoms and the cast-stone, sun-basking sculptures that symbolize butterfly eggs.

Right: Sun-basking sculptures representing butterfly eggs as wildflowers poke through the mulch in the first spring. Photo by Karen Abel.

The egg sculptures enhance the urban garden by providing key butterfly habitat elements. They absorb heat from the sun, creating basking areas where monarchs can collect warmth on cool mornings or dry out after rainfall. Basking areas are important because monarchs are unable to fly until their body temperature warms up to about 30 degrees C. Small spaces between the egg sculptures create crevices for monarchs and other insects to escape wind and rain and hide from predators.

Surrounded by paths, the Migration Garden gives children especially a chance to “get up close and personal with native plants and insect life.”

Since the first spring, Abel has taken photos of the Migration Garden. Late one night not long ago, she stopped by to take a look and saw a spectacle that took her breath away. “It was dark and all I could see in the moonlight were white moths fluttering around the garden. They were nectaring on the white flowers of the Culver’s root. It was beautiful.” And totally unexpected.

Her next project? A moon garden.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer