"No Milkweed, no caterpillars, no Monarchs."
Chris Filmer voiced the dire warning as he recently surveyed the one-acre wildflower meadow on Nearwater Lane near Holly Pond. The Darien Land Trust seeded the meadow last year; in their mix of native wildflower seeds were 3.57 ounces of common Milkweed seed—a mix they hope will help save the Monarch butterfly.
The threatened Monarch butterfly lays its eggs exclusively on the common Milkweed plant, and during its life stage as a caterpillar, devours the Milkwood’s leaves. Without the Milkwood as a food source, the Monarch butterfly would disappear from the face of the earth.
It is too soon to say whether the Milkwood seeds have taken root in the evolving field, named "Brendan’s Meadow," and whether the meadow will attract the golden-winged Monarch butterfly during its epic annual migrations between Canada and Mexico, where patterns of land use are eliminating Milkweed habitat. But the meadow is already aburst with colorful wildflowers; and Filmer, co-chair of the Trust's Stewardship committee, says with the wildflowers come birds, butterflies and insects: a web of interdependent nature, which has evolved over thousands of years.
Filmer and his fellow co-chair of the Darien Land Trust’s Stewardship Committee, Denis Felinghuysen, see the Trust’s mission at Brendan’s Meadow and adjoining Land Trust parcels as nothing less than one of global significance.
Theirs is the battle of the flowers versus the weeds, survival of species versus ecological doom.
The mission of the Darien Land Trust is to preserve and protect open space in Darien. The Trust’s development of a wildflower meadow at 77 Nearwater Lane is just one example of their efforts. Brendan’s Meadow is a story of dramatic transformation of a sterile suburban landscape to a unique ecosystem. It will evolve over the years, the Trust said, into a dazzling display of vibrant reds, yellows, blues, purples and whites set in lush carpeting of native grasses. It will also serve as a model for neighbors to provide nature-friendly habitats in their own backyards.
The story began back in 2006, when a single-family home occupied the choice site. The owners applied to the Planning and Zoning Commission to replace the house with a 24-unit condominium complex with an affordable housing component. A contentious hearing process ensued, and P&Z approved a smaller-scale redevelopment.
Out of the fray emerged an angel—or several angels—whose anonymous financial contribution through the Community Fund of New York, enabled the Darien Land Trust to purchase the land.
It is named "Brendan’s Meadow" for reasons, which, to this day, remain secret.
“‘Brendan’ might be considered synonymous with all loved ones to be remembered for bringing beauty and inspiration to our lives," said Frelinghuysen.
In 2007, the single-family home was demolished, and with a goal to create a low maintenance, biodiverse, stable ecosystem to complement the nearby tidal salt marsh, the Land Trust’s preparations for the meadow began.
"It wasn’t the visual look we were after—a closely-mowed lawn groomed with insecticides and fertilizers is like a desert environmentally—but an enriched habitat that would attract birds and promote life," said Shirley Nichols, the Land Trust’s executive director.
The Land Trust engaged Larry Weaner, a leading landscape designer of Pennsylvania-based Landscape Design Associates, to design the wildflower meadow and prepare it for seeding.
Weaner applied an eco-friendly herbicide to kill invasive species of weeds, carefully avoiding wetlands on the site. A machine that drills tiny holes deposited four pounds of wildflower seeds of 66 varieties. Three hundred wildflowers, Wild Geranium, Yellow False Indigo, Sundrops, Meadow Beauty and Rose Coreopsis were planted as "plugs." Sixty-nine others including Rose Mallow, Showy Goldenrod, White Turtlehead and Turk’s Cap Lily were planted in quart-size arrays. Several small fruit-bearing bushes were added to attract birds and insects.
Although the site appears flat and uniform from the street, the combination of soil conditions (wet, dry, upland, street side) required four different kinds of flower and grass seed mixtures.
Weaner inspected the meadow recently and was pleased with its progress. The heavy rains in June were a boon to some species, he said.
The attention-grabbing cardinal flower, which requires a moist environment, popped up in at least five locations. Its appearance the first year following seeding marks the success of the Land Trust’s project, in local as well as global terms, Weaner added.
The beloved Ruby-throated Hummingbird, well known to Darienite birders, has a special affinity for the brilliant red Cardinal flower. Its elongated beak is perfectly mated to the tubular petals of the cardinal flower within which life-sustaining nectar collects. Hummingbirds thrive when Cardinal flowers abound because competition is slight; other birds lack the hummingbirds’ ability to dive deep enough to reach the nectar. At the same time, the cardinal flowers depend on hummingbirds for pollination because insects also have difficulty navigating the spiky flowers.
Hummingbirds need to consume up to three times their weight per day to prepare for their 2,000-mile migrations to Central America. They have departed Darien this month, said Weaner, but when they return next year, the self-seeding cardinal flowers in Brendan’s Meadow will be heading toward their eventual height of 36 inches in a riotous profusion, difficult to miss from the sky.
Also spotted in Brendan’s Meadow this summer were showy clusters of Brown-Eyed Susans, New England Asters, Great Blue Lobelia, Blue Mist Flowers, Heath Asters, Horse Nettle and Wild Lettuce, said Ian Caton, a designer with Weaner Landscape. And let’s not forget the buzzing bees and flitting butterflies; they too were observed.
The property came with an easement, which allows access to the waterfront and prohibits obstruction of the water view to the west. The parcel is one of four waterfront properties the Land Trust has assembled through gift, easement and purchase to protect the fragile Holly Pond shoreline forever.
Prince Charles of England is known to invite sheep from an adjoining farm to trim the showcase acres of wildflower meadow at his Highgrove Estate. Lacking sheep, the Land Trust will mow the meadow once annually in March and apply an herbicide sparingly on targeted weeds. Pulling out the weeds by hand is not favored because soil disturbance invites invasive species.
Though just a year old, Frelinghuysen said a spirit of timeless serenity envelops Brendan’s Meadow:
"The living, evolving wildflower meadow is a beacon of hope, and life, and a reason to be optimistic in the face of all that daunts us."