The Art of Home: Monarch as metaphor

Susie Vanderlip, a monarch butterfly expert, spoke Saturday at Coastkeeper Garden in Orange about how to attract butterflies into the yard.
(Handout, Daily Pilot)

The little miracle that sprouted five years ago in Susie Vanderlip’s garden continues to grow.

And the Orange resident is on a mission to introduce people to the creature that sparked her epiphany and forever changed her life.

Welcome, the caterpillar.

“Aren’t they just fascinating?” Vanderlip asked an audience of 50 at Santiago Canyon College’s Coastkeeper Garden in Orange on May 2. “They’re so free, energetic and fun.”

Vanderlip, a citizen scientist and an expert in the monarch butterfly’s life cycle, was hosting a discussion on how to attract butterflies into a yard.

It starts with location.

Butterfly gardens should be planted in sunny spots sheltered from the wind. Here is why: Butterflies need the sun to warm them since they cannot fly if it is cooler than 55 degrees, and they won’t want to feed in an area where they can’t alight on a plant because they are being blown about.

Then comes the food and the reproductive assistance.

The secret to a successful butterfly garden, Vanderlip said, is a generous supply of plants to serve as hosts for the female butterfly’s egg laying.

Milkweed, which can be purchased at most nurseries, is an important nectar source for butterflies. Without the plant, monarchs would cease to exist. Vanderlip also warns against using pesticides because they are quite harmful to the butterfly population.

The monarch larva lives as a caterpillar for two weeks, eating the milkweed leaves before it journeys to make the chrysalis. The insect then prefers to form its growth on wood posts, fences and eaves.

Two weeks later, the hard protective case that aids maturing opens up, releasing a butterfly that will live for six to eight weeks.

Vanderlip sees the life cycle as a story of resilience. And she sees her own story the same way.

About 24 years ago, Vanderlip started an outreach program, Legacy of Hope, to support teens and adults by addressing social issues like drinking, drug abuse, suicide and violence. She said she spoke — in part from experience — to over 1 million teens and adults at middle schools, high schools, colleges and conferences.

Her first husband, a Southern California dentist, developed an addiction to alcohol and drugs and died in 1984 at age 35 from an unintentional overdose. The couple had just divorced.

“It was terribly traumatic,” Vanderlip said.

She shared her emotional pain, grief, loss and rage with teens and was on a mission to support families through the difficulties of adolescence.

After 20 years of bringing the awareness program to students throughout the school year, Vanderlip found the work gratifying but depressing.

Being one who believes in divine inspiration, she prayed, asking God for something lighthearted to come into her life.

Two weeks later, her appendix ruptured.

For seven weeks during recovery, Vanderlip couldn’t walk long distances, so she found herself confined to a sofa.

One day, though, she managed to walk out to her beloved garden, and in a moment she recognized the answer to her prayers.

“I saw this bush of brightly colored caterpillars, and they were energetic and moving up and down,” she remembered. “And then I saw butterflies, and I thought, ‘This is a gift.’”

It was a metaphor for her life — the caterpillars were doing anything to survive before they would morph into their next stage of growth.

She started taking her camera into the yard.

“I was experiencing it all, and I was hooked. It was just magical for me,” Vanderlip said.

She documented the caterpillars as they devoured plants and grew. She also tracked their journey to find the perfect spot to form their chrysalis. And when they transformed into butterflies, she captured the change in still and video photography.

The photos and videos inspired her to create a story about a caterpillar on a mission to find his life’s purpose.

That’s how Chester was born.

In 2011, Vanderlip self-published and released “The Story of Chester, The Monarch Caterpillar/ Larva,” a book written for children ages 4 to 9 that depicts a butterfly named Chester. The Irvine Unified School District purchased the book for its second-grade classrooms.

Her mission to share real-life photos and video and anecdotal stories with garden enthusiasts inspired her to begin a Monarch butterfly speaking series at Orange County nurseries. She has since hosted a discussion at the Laguna Beach Garden Club and, recently, the Coastkeeper Garden.

“We wanted to educate the public on how to maintain a beautiful landscape and teach people the most interesting topics,” said Austin Brown, Coastkeeper Garden’s manager. “We’re lucky to have her here.”

Talking about butterflies, Vanderlip said, is a way for her to encourage people to see the beauty around them. She finds joy in watching a child hold a 2-hour-old butterfly on his or her finger.

“It’s all part of who I am, trying to awaken people to respect themselves and the world around them,” Vanderlip said. “A butterfly is something that I can’t control, and it’s always unpredictable, but I’m constantly learning and it’s always fun.”

For more information about butterfly gardening, visit