Posted by Rebecca Ryan on Oct 04, 2019

Oamaru is becoming a metropolis of swan plants and monarch butterflies as the Waitaki Community Gardens, Rotary Club of Oamaru and members of the community undertake a project to preserve the monarch butterfly, which is declining all around the world. Oamaru Mail editor Rebecca Ryan talks to Rotarian Gordon Martin about his passion for the project.



When Gordon Martin was asked to grow a few swan plants to help attract more monarch butterflies to Oamaru, he did not know a thing about them.

He does now.

Over the past 18 months, the Rotarian and Waitaki Community Gardens head gardener has grown more than 1000 swan plants in Oamaru – and he is still planting.

The initial goal was to make Oamaru the monarch butterfly capital of New Zealand.

While that is still something they would like to achieve, they soon realised Oamaru first needed to grow more swan plants and nectar plants – thousands of them.

That, and education, has become the focus of the newly-established Friends of the Monarch Butterfly group.

Waitaki Community Gardens Trust chairwoman Gloria Hurst, who had been interested in undertaking a monarch butterfly preservation project in North Otago for several years, introduced Mr Martin to local butterfly enthusiasts Frith Goldring and Laura Campbell-Cowan, who inspired him to push on with the project.

“We had a chat about it . . . and Frith said to me ‘Go for it, Gordon’ – so I did,” he said.

Mrs Goldring had been raising butterflies in Christchurch, before moving to North Otago about four years ago.

Her interest was piqued after her mother gave her a swan plant with a caterpillar.

“That quickly became two swan plants and then before I knew it I had 500 and I was very, very busy raising butterflies in Christchurch,” she said.

“But when I moved down here, there weren’t any butterflies at all.

“So I made it my mission to introduce butterflies to Waitaki Bridge.”

She took her swan plants to Christchurch for butterflies to lay eggs on and then brought them back to North Otago.

It took her four years to increase the number of butterflies at Waitaki Bridge. Now, the monarchs are coming back every year, and she no longer has to take trips to Christchurch for butterflies to lay eggs on her swan plants.

“With Gordon and Laura and the rest of the community on board, it’s easier and easier,” she said.

The key was growing the supply of food.

“More plants means more butterflies – and the more butterflies you have, the more chance of surviving over winter to come again in spring.

“You need the swan plants for the caterpillars, but you also need nectar plants for the butterflies.”

The four stages of the monarch butterfly life cycle are the egg, the larva (caterpillar), the pupa (chrysalis), and the adult butterfly.

Any butterflies still living in March/April overwinter for the following spring. They are needed to continue the cycle every year, and Mr Martin hopes Oamaru can become a wintering-over sanctuary – a place for them to wait out the cold weather.

His efforts are already paying dividends.

In August, Oamaru residents were delighted to see a mass of orange brightening up the Oamaru Public Gardens as hundreds of monarch butterflies fed on Scottish heather plants.

“What we’ve done in the last year has given Oamaru butterflies, flying around and laying eggs two months earlier than usual.”

It had not been easy to grow and source swan plants in Oamaru in such large numbers.

“You can get a few plants, but then they’re out – you can’t get any in Dunedin, you can’t get any in Christchurch,” he said.

They sourced 200 plants from a nursery in Hamilton, which were distributed to about 40 people in in the community to grow.

“That’s why there were more butterflies around Oamaru last year,” he said.

They also distributed caterpillars to people with swan plants around the district.

“Between four and five of us, we reckon we would’ve distributed out around the district, as well as all those plants, just on 400 caterpillars,” he said.

The Facebook group Oamaru Monarch Butterflies & Caterpillars had become a “go-to place” for the community to swap plants and caterpillars as more people in North Otago joined the movement to preserve the monarch butterfly.

Mr Martin, who has been volunteering at the Waitaki Community Gardens for about eight years, had no idea the initiative would grow in the way it had and he got a buzz out of seeing the community get so excited over monarch butterfly sightings.

The Rotary Club of Oamaru came on board and the project had also been sponsored by Yates.

Other keen gardeners had also stepped in to help, including Oamaru Mail gardening columnist Linda Wilson.

“It’s just grown and grown,” Mr Martin said.

“I can only grow so many plants.”

More plans to involve the community in the Friends of the Monarch Butterfly project will be announced at a “Guide to Monarch Butterflies” event in Oamaru on October 23 at the Loan and Merc.

Monarch butterfly expert Maria Romero is the guest speaker.

She is the founder of The Butterfly Musketeers and is passionate about raising awareness of the monarch butterfly and sharing with people how much can be learnt from the transformation from caterpillar to monarch by studying and caring for them.

She will also be visiting schools in North Otago to encourage children to become conscious of the environment around them and share her knowledge, resources and passion.

Tickets to the event had been “flying out the door” of Paper Plus, where they were for sale in Oamaru, Mr Martin said.