It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in late July, and Karen Albracht meets me in Tenison Park, a loosely treed stretch of land in East Dallas. The park is nestled between northbound and southbound Grand Avenue, the sound of traffic fading in the distance. She wears a sun hat and a smile. At her side stands co-gardener Ann Sansone, armed with a walking stick and a smile of her own.
Albracht has lived in the neighborhood for 38 years. She has always enjoyed the outdoor space, but she was appalled when the Texas Department of Transportation began using the public park to stage its large road-grading equipment in 2016. She began working with the city to section off “no-mow zones”—mowing, she explains, is the killer of all life. In 2017, with the help of volunteers, she unveiled the 1.9-acre Tenison Park Pollinator Garden, which includes a collection of over 50 native flora species that provide food and shelter to pollinators like birds, bees, and monarch butterflies.
Six days before I meet with Albracht and Sansone, the 1,400-member strong International Union for Conservation of Nature added the migratory monarch butterfly to its Red List of Threatened Species. This move categorizes the butterfly subspecies, the official insect of Texas, as endangered1.
The migratory monarch population is known for its transcontinental journeys every year back and forth from Canada to Mexico. Its population has shrunk between 22 and 72 percent over the past 10 years, according to an IUCN report. Deforestation, urbanization, climate change, and pesticides and herbicides have all had detrimental impacts on the subspecies’ western and eastern populations. Monarchs that winter in California are estimated to have dwindled almost 99.9 percent since the 1980s. The eastern population, which passes through Texas to Mexico in September, dropped by 84 percent from 1996 to 2014.
Albracht, Sansone, and I walk across Tenison Park to the 1.9-acre pollinator garden, which is a Monarch Watch-certified “monarch waystation”—basically a pitstop for the butterflies during their migration. The station has all the necessary resources to help sustain the species’ population. Think shelter, sunlight, and food to eat, like frostweed2, which blooms in the fall and feeds adult monarchs as they migrate south.
“Did you see that Facebook post that’s going around about the monarch endangerment?” Sansone asks Albracht, shaking her head. “Some group’s giving out tropical milkweed to anyone who signs their petition.”
I’m not a gardener, but I can tell this is no good. It’s not until later, though, when I speak with Dawn Rodney, the National Wildlife Federation’s chief innovation and growth officer, that I fully understand the issue.
“The easiest thing anyone can do to save the monarch is plant native milkweed,” Rodney says. The perennial plant, characterized by its clusters of flowers and its milky fluid, is the only place monarchs will lay their eggs, as milkweed serves as both a home and food source to caterpillars. “The ‘native’ part is essential—if it’s not native, it won’t do them any good.”
All milkweed species naturally produce a toxic substance. Monarchs have developed a tolerance over time to native species, like green and antelope horn milkweeds, which both grow in the Dallas area. Non-native species, like tropical milkweed, produce more toxins than the butterflies are used to, which can be harmful3. Rodney refers to me gardenforwildlife.com, the NWF’s resource for identifying plants native to your area.
The Tenison Pollinator Garden is at the north end of the park. There are beds of native plants lined by short barriers built from tree limbs. The plants appear large and mature, but most are clearly suffering from extreme heat and the drought. Some are wilting while others remain miraculously perky despite the Texas summer. Birds and bees feed and fly around.
“Look, a hummingbird!” Albracht points out. It’s across the garden, enjoying nectar from a native plant. This isn’t the only time a pollinator interrupts her train of thought; her enthusiasm for the fauna is palpable.
The gardeners walk me through the basics of natural gardening, explaining that all the garden’s plants are native to the region. They don’t need pesticides or even water—both of which Albracht, Sansone, and Rodney avoid. Pesticides kill wildlife (and monarchs), and water is largely unnecessary to sustain native plants. Like anything alive in Dallas right now, the garden looks a bit beat by the sun, but Albracht and Sansone assure me that the plants are merely dormant; they’ll look livelier when it’s their season. Besides, their purpose is much greater than cosmetics: they’re here to sustain life.
Throughout our time together, it becomes clear how Dallas specifically threatens monarchs, from the use of pesticides in the city to irrigation troubles to homeowners gardening with invasive species4. But there is an enormous opportunity to support them. “We want this garden to serve as an example to the community,” Albracht says. “Anyone who gives up even part of their turf lawn to allow space for native species can do so much for these pollinators.”
Rodney echoes Albracht’s sentiment, but reminds that we, too, are part of this ecosystem. The health of the monarch is entwined with our own. She points to urbanization, climate change, and water and air quality as affecting not only wildlife, but also the human population. “We can’t wait until things get dire to do something about it,” she says.
My nearly 90-minute tour of the Tenison Park Pollinator Garden wraps with mutual appreciation and an invitation to Albracht’s upcoming Seed Ball at the Lakewood Branch Library on August 13, where she’ll guide budding naturalists in forming clusters of seeds so they can start their own gardens. She gushes with gratitude for the volunteers who help her.
“I know you wanted to talk about monarchs,” she remembers. “But you can’t talk about monarchs without talking about all of this.”