NEW BEDFORD >> Students from Bristol County Agricultural High School gathered at the Buttonwood Park and Zoo on a warm fall day to try to do one thing: save the monarchs.

The monarch butterfly population has declined by 90 percent in the last decade, Carrie Hawthorne, education curator at the zoo, told more than a dozen students before heading over to the butterfly garden to plant eight different species of plants.

They mostly looked like dirt even though they've been growing at Bristol Aggie since around June. But Mary Rapoza, director of parks, recreation and beaches, said appearances can be deceiving.

The plants, which include milkweeds, are "an important part of a species' life cycle," Rapoza said.

Aaron Caswell, a Bristol Aggie natural resource management instructor, explained the plants are native or as close to native as possible so they'll be able to adapt to the climate. Especially now, water is a concern, but he said as long as it stays cool, the soil will absorb the water. "A lot of these plants grow slowly and have a low germination rate," he said. Many plants put most growth in their roots for the first year, he said.

Caswell said the school focuses on real, hands-on projects that serve a purpose. Many of those proposed don't have the funding for manpower, but "we can help supplement that," he said.


Inside the 80 x 5-foot garden, Rapoza told the students to put the plants in a diamond shape so people know it's an intentional garden. But this is just phase one. There will be two more gardens to be planted at the zoo and park with the Friends of Buttonwood Park and the Hayden-McFadden elementary after school program called Let's Move Beyond the Bell.

Monarchs are "so dependent on these milkweeds," said George Bancroft, a Bristol Aggie senior and Dartmouth resident. "It's very important that we're planting these here so we can get that population up." Bancroft has been a volunteer at the zoo since last June in the aquatics department.

Hawthorne said Monarch Watch donated milkweed plants along with Bristol Aggie and the Garden Club of Buzzards Bay gave funding for the garden signage.

"The zoo is always looking for conservation projects," she said.

Bristol Aggie alumni and current UMass Dartmouth grad student Amanda Palmer just started volunteering at the zoo and will work with the bobcats. She showed the students items from nature she's collected such as a dead Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly that she found on the ground at Blue Hills and some milkweed.

Ray Castino, Friends of Buttonwood Park president, was raking the garden at one end as students started planting at another. He said it was the "perfect place for a butterfly garden."

"This is an amazing education opportunity," said Jonathan Waage, a member of the zoo's board of directors. A former professor of ecology and evolution at Brown University, he said he'd take his students to the south coast of Rhode Island to watch the monarchs fly out. "You don't see the big numbers anymore," he said.