When I learned that my science teacher friend, Annette Parker Khan, was to give the program for the year’s final meeting of the Washington, La., garden club, and she told me the topic: Butterflies in Your Garden, I asked for the last working copy of her notes, because I know how dear to her heart is the protection and proliferation of these delightful creatures we take for granted.
She told me the group was already excited about butterfly gardening, and that they had included plants that attract and nourish these transient visitors in the garden they are creating at the St. John’s church property.
You might ask, if you were in a grouchy or contrary mood, why all the fuss about butterflies? They are beautiful, which is enough in a garden. But they work hard at pollinating flowers. And some species are migratory and travel thousands of miles to drop in on us and say, “It’s springtime.”
Knowing human nature, Annette said, “Focus on the large showy butterflies when first starting. If you are successfully managing these large butterflies, the smaller, more dull colored butterflies will follow.”
And I learned that moths are also utilizing many of these same flowers nocturnally, unnoticed by all of us. Annette says night moth observation is becoming more popular and requires white posterboard and a black light. Sounds like this variation is on her future project list.
Some plants naurally produce more nectar than do others. Stand still in a garden area and observe where butterflies go. You want more of these plants. Daylilies produce little nectar and are ignored by butterflies, so if you want both, you will have to mix in other plants.
Daylilies are beautiful, and easy; but not very important in my total scheme of things - I call them “deer candy” and avoid planting them.
Where I’d like big splashes of a butterfly attracting plant would be containers within the fenced daffodil garden. The deer can leap over the fence, but it’s a bit of a stretch and they need to think it isn’t worth the extra effort. All spring they have avoided that garden, because daffodils are poisonous to deer, and the deer know it. So nothing else must lure them into summer or fall habits that will be tough to break.
Actually, if you want butterflies, the easiest plants with the greatest attraction are the perennial lantana and the annual zinnia. Right now I’m focusing on lantana, in many colors, drought resistant, and capable of reaching quite a large size.
Zinnias are very easy from seed and can fill in the open spaces in your border. Salvia, in all its forms, is wonderful; I was thrilled to discover my first salvia bloom today.
Butterflies are present during the sunniest part of the day, generally 9 to 4 depending on the orientation of the garden bed. They take cover when it’s cloudy. (I meant to ask Annette, “Why do they do this?” but in my brief phone call tonight, I forgot. I am sure she can read a butterfly’s mind.)
The best known butterfly in the USA is of course the monarch, partly because of its good looks, and partly because they do not stay around all the time. The monarchs are migratory; all the monarchs that fly up the Mississippi River thoroughfare are coming from one small forest in Michoacan, Mexico, where they go to spend the winter and stay warm.
So we have to provide food to sustain them as they fly northward in the spring, and return each autumn. Their food of choice is milkweed; tropical milkweed provides the most foliage for your caterpillar livestock.
The first totally new fact I’d learned, in this correspondence course, is that milkweed doesn’t have to be bought as seed and spread around. It can be bought as started plants, just like marigolds and zinnias. Even the big box stores sell started plants, pots of milkweed. They have been treated with a systemic, which plants from a native nursery would not have. But just wait - it will be fine.
If you have a chosen butterfly area, plant the tropical milkweed, from plants, from seed, and from rooted cuttings you saved or acquired. The milkweed needs a sunny, moist area, and can grow quite tall, but branches when it is pruned,
Two other pieces of general gardening advice for would-be butterfly specialists: do not kill any native tree or plant unless it is invasive. The lowly hackberry is the only host plant for two or three butterfly species. Black cherry (I think I still have one or two) is one host of the lovely tiger swallowtail.
Last, minimize mosquito control products unless medically necessary. Do not apply bug spray near your plantings and do not handle caterpillars after you have been applying bug spray.
So, now I’m going to have to go back to the first paragraph of Annette’s notes, which I skimmed over, wondering why she put it first, “Buy several books on this topic that are written specifically for the lower South.”
Meanwhile, my next garden center shopping list will include several pots of lantana, and I know just the sunny spot for setting them out - just as soon as Vicki and I have cleared out some volunteer weed seedlings.