Jay Parsons was in high school when he and his father built a pond in their Omaha backyard and planted the perimeter with Swamp milkweed.
Then something extraordinary happened.
“In a few weeks, I noticed something munching on the leaves and then there were monarch butterflies,” Parsons said.
“It was just magical and so easy. We planted the milkweed and provided the habitat. The monarchs loved it, laid their eggs and continued their lifecycle.”
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Since that moment more than 20 years ago, the Olathe resident and teacher has made it his mission to care for, protect and educate about the monarch.
During the past 14 years as an elementary school teacher, Parsons has taken the opportunity to bring monarchs — and the milkweed essential for their survival — to his students.
“After I established milkweed in my backyard, I brought monarch eggs, the chrysalis, and then the emerging adults to school. Students saw how simple it was to help the monarch with milkweed. I brought the natural curriculum to them in a very tangible way.”
In the past year, Parsons has donated dozens of milkweed and golden rod plants to Olathe’s Pollinator Prairie. A former chemical recycling facility, the Pollinator Prairie land has been restored over the past 15 years and is now home to bees, birds, and butterflies which benefit from Parsons’ plants.
As part of his mission to protect monarchs, Parsons is raising awareness about their threatened existence.
“Monarchs are endangered and there are two or three really big factors. Primarily it’s lack of habitat,” he said.
“They need milkweed and there’s not enough of it. We’ve turned the prairie that was originally here into lawns and landscapes with non-native plants and grasses. Without milkweed, the monarch has no way of raising their young.”
Chemicals are another factor, he says.
“We’re choking out what remains of their habitat and shocking it with insecticides that harm monarchs — and herbicides which kill milkweed.”
The central United States is an important monarch habitat and the Interstate 35 corridor, from Minnesota to Texas, is considered an important habitat zone for the butterflies, Parsons said.
“A number of states are planting more milkweed and native plants near the highway. A lot of good things are going on and we’re in the heart of it. We can still turn it around and make some headway for the monarchs here.”
Over the past couple of years, Parsons has taken more action to raise awareness about this urgency.
Two years ago, he started selling his plants at the Olathe Farmers’ Market.
“Customers don’t expect to find milkweed, wildflowers, and native grasses at the farmers’ market but when they see my booth, they get excited about purchasing the plants and learning how they can help monarchs,” he said.
Parson’s hope is that more people will plant our schools, parks, and backyards with native species to provide monarchs and all wildlife the habitats they need.
“They make an amazing migration every year that still baffles scientists. When something so strong and beautiful but also so fragile is dying off, it’s very telling that what we’re doing is not helping the natural world.”