Bristol Joseph is saving the monarchs, one milkweed plant at a time.
After her mother, Joanna Joseph, mentioned last year the monarch butterfly population was declining, the 8-year-old started doing research and hatched a plan to save the butterflies.
“My mom has loved butterflies her entire life. She told me that monarchs were going endangered and I needed to help because it’s her favorite kind of butterfly,” said Bristol, a third-grader at Trinity East Elementary School.
“I think they’re really beautiful,” added Joanna who is also a master gardener. “Then we started to hear that they were becoming an endangered species. The National Wildlife Federation has asked for home gardeners to plant milkweed in their yards.”
The monarch population has decreased substantially in the last decade. Data is collected annually when butterflies arrive in Mexico, where they spend winter, covering acres of trees in their unmistakably striking black and yellow wing pattern.
“The three lowest overwintering populations down in Mexico on record were recorded just in the last 10 years,” said Rachel Handel, communications director for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. “Far fewer monarchs are making it.”
Scientists attribute the declining monarch population to deforestation and the use of pesticides. Handel said one of the best things home gardeners can do is plant native species like milkweed in their gardens – which is where Bristol comes into play.
Bristol learned all she could about monarchs and how to help them. She devised a plan to save the beautiful butterflies and launched the Magical Milkweed Market last spring.
“I went to a place where they sell milkweed. I grew it in my garden. Then I got them and I sold them to people,” she said.
Bristol started selling milkweed during the lockdown, when people were trying their hands at sourdough bread baking and gardening. She and her mom purchased the native species – the only plant monarchs lay eggs on – from Stimmell’s Greenhouse in Washington, marketed Bristol’s campaign on Nextdoor and sold plants for $2 a piece at a garage sale.
The milkweed was a huge hit.
“People just kept coming and coming and coming,” said Bristol.
Bristol sells the plants when they are still young, so buyers experience growing milkweed. She created a board to teach people about monarchs and milkweed, and was invited to share her knowledge with the South Strabane Green Team last year.
“My favorite part is talking to the people,” she said.
Bristol recently expanded her efforts, adding butterfly-embossed coffee mugs and notebooks to her inventory. She includes conservation literature with every sale and shares butterfly information on both her TikTok account and YouTube channel, Bristol’s 5 Minute Adventures.
Recently, Joanna captured footage of a caterpillar forming a chrysalis, a process that takes less than 30 seconds and something most people don’t ever get to see. The video was uploaded alongside other five-minute shorts edited by Bristol – including a documentary about Bruce Springsteen, who gave her permission to use his music and a voice over.
Joanna said the Magical Milkweed Market has been a rewarding experience. She and Bristol enjoy searching for eggs and caterpillars on their milkweed plants – they’ve planted dozens in the family’s many gardens – and Bristol loves releasing the butterflies after they hatch.
“(Bristol)’s been getting pictures and messages from people all around town who discovered monarch caterpillars on their milkweed and they were so excited,” she said. “She feels like she helped the population out.”
Bristol said her mom’s passion for gardening sparked her own and she will continue selling milkweed plants and seeds to help save the monarchs.
“It is wonderful to hear that there is a little girl out there who has taken this on as a project,” Handel said. “I would just add to that by saying milkweed is critically important to monarch butterflies. In addition to milkweed, I would strongly recommend that people look into other native plants that support (other species).”
Bristol said the Magical Milkweed Market has “been a very good learning experience because every day I could wake up and I would learn something new.”
“Plant some milkweed and help the butterflies,” she added.