As summer slowly slips toward autumn in the western piedmont of North Carolina, a journey of mythical proportions is silently taking place above our heads.
As the days shorten and the nights grow cooler and the haze lifts from Carolina blue skies, thousands of the migrants noiselessly flap their dazzling orange and black wings and head south, always south.
As they make the arduous journey from Canada and the northern United States to their winter homes in Mexico, a place of rest has been provided for the graceful, beautiful monarch butterflies -- the Gateway Trail’s Butterfly Garden.
The garden rests within the area known as The Plateau -- a flat, circular 3.5-acre tract with few large trees and full sunlight to spur the milkweed plant, the flowering bush on which mature butterflies lay their eggs and which provides nourishment and protection for the caterpillars.
Although located just south of downtown Kings Mountain between U.S. 74 and I-85, The Plateau has such a remote feel that a visitor could easily think he was deep in a mountain wilderness -- which is exactly why it proves popular not only with monarchs but also with other species of butterflies and bees as well.
So how did a meadow atop a low peak undergo its own metamorphosis into a rest stop along the Butterfly Highway for monarchs and other species?
Well, a couple of interests came together.
Duke Energy employees Cheryl Kelton and Randy Hinnant, who in 2015 both worked at the Kings Mountain Generation Support Facility, wanted to begin a sustainable volunteer project to create and maintain a pollinator garden.
Shirley Brutko, executive director of the Gateway Trail, which will one day link downtown Kings Mountain to the Crowders Mountain State Park trail system, had become interested in a butterfly garden after learning how the colorful insects are considered endangered.
“Some connections are just meant to be,” said Kelton of Duke Energy and the Gateway Trail coming together. “We found the environmental cause much needed and knew this would be the start of something wonderful.”
The garden was designed by Dennis Paterson, who plowed the area and prepared it for planting.
A $4,000 grant from the Duke Energy Foundation, $4,500 from Duke employees, volunteer labor on the part of Duke workers, and additional community support led volunteers to clear debris from the site and place rocks along a curved gravel path through the garden.
Then volunteers from Duke Energy, the Gateway Trail and Kings Mountain High School’s Earth and Environmental classes distributed a pollinator seed mixture containing milkweed -- the only plant upon which monarchs will lay their eggs and which caterpillars will eat.
Milkweed also protects both the eggs and the caterpillars because the flowering plant is poisonous to most other insects and birds.
The garden is still very much a work in progress, pointed out Brutkho as she stood atop The Plateau, and will require the eradication of some hostile plants in the area, the planting of more milkweed bushes, and the installation of arbors, benches and educational displays.
The work of creating such pollinator gardens is important, however.
As the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats, bees, beetles and flies pollinate more than 75 percent of the nation’s flowering plants and nearly 75 percent of its crops. The monarchs and other pollinators are threatened by climate change, pesticide use, and habitat loss.
Bill Poteat may be reached at 704-869-1855, assuming he is not atop The Plateau, basking in the early-autumn sunshine.