Milkweed is toxic. It contains a cardiac poison that will stop the heart of winged and furry creatures, except the orange-and-black monarch butterfly, for which milkweed is, literally, life’s blood. Monarchs lay their eggs in milkweed, and it is the sole food source for its larvae.

“Birds have learned that when they see one of those yellow-and-black striped caterpillars – monarch larvae are not orange – to stay away from it. Don’t eat that!” said Frates Seeligson, director of the San Antonio River Foundation. “It’s one of those amazing, unbelievable things about nature.”

Seeligson played a major role in the fundraising and construction of the $13 million Confluence Park, the Southside nature sanctuary that, with its soaring, Calla lily-inspired concrete parabolas, education facility, and 3 acres of native Texas plants, is a key element of the Mission Reach river improvement project.

In a development that encompasses international diplomacy, a ton of mulch, and one of nature’s fragile life cycles, the monarch – and other pollinators, including bees and bats – is getting new designated habitat within the park.

The 2,500-square-foot North American Friendship Garden is a tennis-court-sized plot that features native grasses, trees, shrubs, and wildflowers that pollinators love. Its dedication, originally set for Friday, has been postponed until late June.

The North American Friendship Garden is a collaborative effort by the Consulate General of Canada in Texas and the Consulate General of Mexico in San Antonio, the City of San Antonio, San Antonio River Authority, and San Antonio River Foundation. 

Most of the plants in the garden, which include Mexican plum and Anacacho orchid trees, sea oats, lantana, salvia and, for those with a heartier palate, chili pequin, are not found in the rest of Confluence Park. 

For the monarch butterflies, more than 100 milkweed plants, including Antelope Horn milkweed, whose flower heads resemble its namesake, have gone in the ground. 

It will be a year or so before the garden matures, and then it will become a sort of stagecoach stop on the monarch’s annual journey to and from Mexico to Canada, which generally follows the north-south path of Interstate 35. 

Since farmers and ranchers have long thought of milkweed as a weed, with no use for it, the Friendship Garden will become an important South Texas hub for the monarch.

“San Antonio is perfectly positioned for a garden like this,” said Seeligson, a former rancher. “But we also want to engage in a conversation about the importance of preserving habitat. The monarch is a powerful symbol, a sort of talisman. Its story is a story of multigenerational migration, and it is vulnerable because of a loss of habitat. We need to think in terms that this could be us, too.”

A gardener puts the finishing touches on the Friendship Garden in Confluence Park.
A gardener puts the finishing touches on the Friendship Garden in Confluence Park. Plants in the new pollinator garden include Mealy Blue Sage, Bird’s Eye Peppers, and Greg’s Blue Mist. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

After a visit to San Antonio in February 2021 by a delegation from the Consulate General of Canada, the Friendship Garden was championed not only as a symbol of friendship and cooperation between the three treaty-bound North American countries, but as the exemplification of conservation, with hopes of constructing similar gardens in Canada and another in Mexico in the coming years. 

“The North American Friendship Garden is located within important migratory flyways, including the Texas Funnel, which supports monarch butterflies as they travel through this area each year using San Antonio as a rest stop while heading north towards Canada in the spring and south towards Mexico in the fall,” Noëlla De Maina, with the Office of the Consulate General of Canada in Dallas, wrote in an email. “Just like the butterflies, we need each other to fight climate change and leave this world a better place for future generations.”

Seeligson envisions field trips – a daily occurrence before the pandemic – with local students at Confluence Park joined online by classrooms in Mexico and Canada.

“School kids in San Antonio would go to the park and be joined on Zoom by kids in Montreal and Guadalajara,” he said. “You get students out of the classroom, and it helps them to realize what a big, big world it is, and how different elements of an ecosystem can work together. If we want to raise a generation of young minds capable of solving issues of the climate crisis, we need to bring the rural back into the urban environment. I love books and I love to read, but sometimes you need to get out and see and smell and touch.”

Scientists note that monarchs are part of nature’s alarm system: If they are in trouble due to declining habitat, then other pollinators and wildlife that share that habitat are in dire straits as well. That, in turn, can have an impact on human food supplies.

“The Friendship Garden has different layers,” said Sherry Dowlatshahi, chief diplomacy and protocol officer for the city of San Antonio. “One layer is the friendship and goodwill of three countries working toward common goals. Another layer is the issue of migration and cooperation between countries. As a migratory insect, the monarch is a representation of migration. This is a small garden with huge significance. I call it a giving tree because it will play a key role in future initiatives.”

Visitors to the park can sit on concrete garden benches featuring animated butterfly designs by local artist Gary Sweeney.

“It was understood that this would be a place where parents would bring their children to learn about the wonders of nature, and they gave me a list of wildlife that acts as pollinators,” Sweeney said. “I began drawing bees, wasps, and bats, and it dawned on me that, close up, they’re kind of frightening creatures. So I switched gears and made them in the benign style of children’s drawings.”

No pollinator garden would be complete without a bug hotel, so local architecture firm Ford, Powell & Carson designed a squat, cylindrical structure of a composite material that resembles a small cistern with its sides perforated with volleyball-sized, diamond-shaped holes. Organic materials are placed in the structure – bees love stacked bamboo canes – and it becomes a safe space for pollinators to shelter, lay their eggs, raise their young, and seek refuge from predators.

Peter Pierson, with the San Antonio River Authority, explained that they built a "bug hotel" that will be filled with various materials and vegetation to encourage the nesting of various bugs and pollination of plants in the garden.
The designed “bug hotel” will be filled with various organic materials and vegetation to encourage the nesting of insects and pollination of plants in the garden. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

“We’re hoping the garden will serve as a classroom for families and children on the importance of pollination in the natural cycle,” Dowlatshahi said.

Seeligson points out another important aspect of pollination: “If we have no bats, we have no tequila!” he said with a laugh. “Can you imagine that? Mexican free-tailed bats pollinate the agave plants. So much of what we eat and drink depends directly on pollination.”

Steve Bennett has written about arts and culture in San Antonio for more than 30 years.