Rosario Collet, a member of Christ the King Parish in Milwaukie, is planting milkweed and other na-tives that help pollinators. She’s doing so both as a volunteer at the Grotto and as a gardener at home. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Rosario Collet, a member of Christ the King Parish in Milwaukie, is planting milkweed and other na-tives that help pollinators. She’s doing so both as a volunteer at the Grotto and as a gardener at home. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Rosario Collet, a member of Christ the King Parish in Milwaukie, was in her element while raking out mulch at the Grotto in Northeast Portland last autumn.

“I love the gardens here and I want to help the butterflies and bees,” she said.

Collet was part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteer corps restoring habitat at the Grotto for pollinators. The group is planting native flowering plants, most notably milkweed, which is crucial for the survival of monarch butterflies. Monarchs lay their eggs in milkweed, which provides essential nutrition for the larvae. Milkweed has disappeared across the nation — and with it, monarch populations have crashed since the 1990s, down 75 percent or more.

The situation is especially dire for Western monarchs. Cheryl Schultz, an associate professor at Washington State University in Vancouver, was the lead author of a study that found that compared to the 10 million monarchs that overwintered in coastal California in the 1980s, today there are barely 300,000. That’s a trajectory that points to extinction.

While pesticides, logging, development and climate change probably all play a role, key to the butterfly’s annihilation is the loss of milkweed habitat.

Monarchs + milkweed

“If you don’t have milkweed, you don’t have monarchs,” said Vicki Finn, chief of staff of the Pacific Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The service has petitioned that monarchs be listed as an endangered species.

“We want to find solutions that balance the needs of people and nature,” she said. “Healthy habitats produce things people need, including clean air, clean water and safe food.”

Finn said Fish and Wildlife is seeking out partnerships, like the one with the Grotto, where the group also is installing bat and mason bee boxes for those important pollinator species.

The federal agency also encourages individuals to act in ways that help pollinators.

Collet said she’s doing what she can, both as a volunteer and in her own garden in Clackamas. She’s planting milkweed and flowering natives there, too.

Collet said that after 32 years working for Kaiser Permanente, she’s loving mornings like the one she spent working at the Grotto in early October 2017. She and others were raking dark, fragrant hemlock mulch around the plants they’d put in the grounds on either side of the walk leading into the meditation chapel. The building shimmered in the morning light, its view of Mount St. Helens sparkling.

Mark Combelic, grounds manager at the Grotto, said that while his primary concern for the sanctuary is for the aesthetics, the Fish and Wildlife group’s plan to make the 62-acre property friendlier to pollinators was intriguing.

“I’ve learned quite a bit,” he said, adding that birds and pollinators are part of the beauty at the sanctuary.

To that end, the group worked with Lory Duralia of Bosky Dell Natives Nursery in West Linn. She took into account the height, blooming time and color of the gardens around the chapel and suggested the group plant Oregon grape, trillium, lupine, wild huckleberry, deer fern (for fill), beach daisy, wild strawberries and, of course, milkweed. The group had amended the soil (with an organic mix of compost, sand and fine fir), so that the ground wouldn’t dry out so quickly.

It wasn’t the first time Nick Bielemeier, one of the volunteers from the staff of Fish and Wildlife, had been to the Grotto. He remembers visiting as a student at Sacred Heart School in Gervais.

“Can you imagine butterflies fluttering around in here?” he asked.