News and Updates from Charlotte's Quest

Charlotte’s Quest recently became home to 25 American chestnut seedlings (Castanea dentata) as part of an effort to restore the nearly extinct tree to its native range.

The American chestnut was once a defining feature of the eastern North America forest. The tree, which could reach 100 feet high, made up roughly 25% of the hardwood forest from Maine to Florida. The chestnuts the trees produced were an important source of food for wildlife, livestock, and people. Its wood was rot-resistant, making it an important building material. However, in 1904 a fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) was discovered on a chestnut tree in the New York Botanical Garden. The fungus was native to Asia, and it had little effect on the Asian chestnuts, but it decimated the American chestnut population. Within just 40 years, it virtually eradicated all mature American chestnut trees, altering U.S. forests forever.

Restoring the American Chestnut

Still, the American chestnut has not gone extinct. The blight caused by the fungus does not kill the tree’s root system, so trees will continue to send up new sprouts from their stumps, although the sprouts will eventually succumb to the blight.

Moreover, the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) and other groups are working to restore the tree to its native range by breeding blight-resistant trees. ACF does this by crossing the American chestnut with the blight-resistant Chinese chestnut. Through many generations of careful breeding, the ACF strives to remove the Chinese chestnut genes except those that provide blight resistance. ACF is currently testing these promising new chestnuts.

Work at Charlotte’s Quest

In support of this work, Girl Scout Troop 1437 and Troop 939 and other volunteers recently helped plant 25 chestnut seedlings from ACF in the park. The Stewardship Committee and Weed Warriors helped plan and prepare the locations for the seedlings, which included the laborious task of removing large invasive vines, bushes, and some dead Chestnut trees from a previous planting from 2009.

The troops will monitor the trees throughout the year and take yearly measurements for the next five years to record growth and survivorship. The seedlings are currently wrapped in tree shelters and netting to protect them from the deer and cicadas, but there is no way to protect them from their biggest threat, the chestnut blight.

This effort will offer important real-world data to help determine whether the trees are truly blight-resistant and capable of surviving in their native range. ACF uses the data to improve its breeding project and develop a stronger and more consistent blight-resistant population.

Visit the Orchard

View the Chestnut orchard on the edge of the open field area nearing the stream, alongside the Green Trail. The new seedlings are planted amongst the trees from the 2009 planting, so the grove has some older trees that you can view the “cankers” on.

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I can still remember when my kindergarten class raised monarch butterflies. We were all so excited to see the caterpillars and discover which had formed chrysalises. Anyone who participated in this rite of passage as a child must remember the day when the teacher announced we would take the butterfly “houses” outside - the monarchs would soon need to be set free! It’s a lovely childhood memory for me, and it may be when my love of nature began.

The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration, like birds. Millions of monarchs make this round-trip journey. Monarchs in Eastern North America spend winter in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Monarchs in Western North America spend winter in California. During their travels, they use the sun to stay on course, but they also have an internal compass to help them navigate on cloudy days. Monarchs only travel during the day and gather close together during the cool autumn evenings in roost sites.

In Maryland, we sometimes start seeing monarchs as early as April, although more often we see them emerge in late Summer. The female monarch butterfly lays between 300 and 500 eggs over a two- to five-week period. After a few days, the eggs hatch into caterpillars, who spend most of their time eating milkweed. The caterpillars eat their fill for about two weeks, and then they spin protective cases, known as a chrysalis. About a week or two later, they finish their metamorphosis and emerge as a butterfly. The distinctive colors of the monarch warn off predators. The toxins in the milkweed they eat help to protect monarchs by making them poisonous to predators who might try to eat them!

With their two sets of orange and black wings and a wingspan of three to four inches, the monarch is among the most easily recognizable butterflies, although we are not seeing them as often as we used to. Since the 1980s, Western monarchs have declined by an estimated 99% and Eastern monarchs have declined by an estimated 80%. In part, this decline is due to the use of pesticides which negatively affect beneficial insects like monarchs and other pollinators. The disappearance of milkweed is another major reason for the decline in the monarch’s population. Milkweed is the only place monarchs will lay their eggs and the only food monarch caterpillars eat. In addition, climate change threatens to disrupt the monarch butterfly’s annual migration pattern by affecting weather conditions in both wintering grounds and summer breeding grounds. On December 15, 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that listing the monarch as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act is warranted but precluded by higher priorities.

Every year, the Eastern monarch butterfly flies up to 3,000 miles from its breeding grounds in the US and Canada, all the way down to its hibernation grounds in central Mexico. These tiny creatures have the most highly evolved migratory pattern of any known species of their kind, but this unique phenomenon is under threat. Monarchs need places to reproduce and feed. However, herbicide use is decreasing the availability of their primary food source, the milkweed plant. Climate change is also impacting monarchs. Abnormal patterns of drought and rainfall in North America’s breeding sites may cause adult butterfly deaths and less plant food for caterpillars.

Monarch conservation projects are ongoing across North America. At Charlotte’s Quest, we’ve planted milkweed and nectar plants in our pollinator garden, and we garden organically to minimize our impact on monarchs and other pollinators. Many of our members are citizen scientists and help monitor monarchs in our area. The data collected is critical for developing conservation policies to protect monarchs.

What can you do to help Monarchs?

  • Become a citizen scientist and help monitor monarchs and other species by downloading the iNaturalist app.

  • Follow the monarch’s journey north from Mexico as documented by Dr. Ellen Sharp, Ms. Anna Moreno, Mr. Pato Moreno, and Ms. Estela Romero and add your own observations at Journey North.

  • If you have a garden, plant milkweed for monarchs. Different types of milkweed grow best in different regions so check out which type you’ll need to plant. If you do start seeing monarch butterflies, pay close attention to which plants they land on and which direction they fly; you may have milkweed nearby and you could have the chance to experience the full monarch lifecycle!

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As summer approaches plants begin to bloom and if you’re anything like

me, then pollen allergies have struck in force. As much of a pain this is for so

many, pollen and the plants that produce it serve a much higher purpose then to

simply make one sneeze. Pollen is the substance that comes from flowering plants

that allows them to bloom and reproduce, but this process doesn’t occur on its

own. In fact there is an entire category of insects known as “pollinators” who

spread it from one flowering plant to another, which allows them to bloom and


The most prevalent of these so called pollinators in this region would be the

Monarch butterfly. The monarch butterfly or simply monarch is a milkweed

butterfly in the family Nymphalidae. Other common names, depending on region,

include milkweed, common tiger, wanderer, and black veined brown. It may be the

most familiar North American butterfly, and is considered an iconic pollinator

species. Its wings feature an easily recognizable black, orange, and white pattern,

with a wingspan of 8.9–10.2 cm

At Charlotte’s Quest we have it a priority to help keep a healthy Monarch

population in Maryland. This has been done by keeping a field of Milkweed that

eventually attracts Monarch’s and other pollinators; once attracted they will

continue to pollinate and allow such plants to reproduce, thus ensuring the health

of our local ecosystem. The Milkweed also provides a place for Monarch larvae to

grow and thrive with a healthy food supply. Come August, we will be bringing

special attention to our local pollinators and Monarch’s on our website; in

celebration of these beautiful creatures, and to hopefully spread community

awareness of their important role in the local ecosystem.

by Jake King

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