Outstanding gardens feed a need
  Butterfly habitats take care of butterflies and their offspring

April 15, 2004
Victoria County
Master Gardener

Throughout landscape history, beautiful gardens have been the re-creations of profound natural settings. True garden masterpieces are full of the sounds and movement of life. They still have wildness and mystery, and are rarely contrived or restricted.

For outstanding gardens, especially butterfly habitats, the elements of a successful natural environment must be understood. Unlike plants, butterflies are free to choose where they go. If we do a bad job of planning and managing a plant's habitat, a plant will die and a butterfly will go somewhere else. Butterflies have a short life and do not choose to spend it where conditions are not favorable.

The right nectar plants are good for butterflies, and the host or larval food plants for caterpillars are essential for success and a continuous population. So, if you've spent your gardening life killing "worms" on your parsley, dill and passionflower, and even milkweed, re-educate yourself and plant some for the butterfly babies and some for you. Eaten leaves are a sign of plant health and successful butterfly gardening. A good well-drained stand of parsley and dill, especially the variety "ducat," will bring black swallowtails and their larvae. Some host plants are common garden and native plants while others are very hard to find. They can be found growing in the wild, in mail-order nurseries or from plant trading, or even at the Victoria County Master Gardener plant sales. The next one will be held in conjunction with the Annual Garden Tour on May 1. These plants may provide exactly what your heart and favorite butterfly desires.

Other features - such as effective shelter from wind and rain, a brushy area or stacked branches, damp spots imitating salt-laden edges of rivers or lakes (called puddling areas), the right organization and mix of plants and garden features for height and especially wind protection, and record keeping - add up to habitat success for butterflies.

Although butterflies rarely nectar on large, showy flowers (they are designed to attract humans, not butterflies), it is important to arrange the plantings in groups. Butterflies will stay around longer if there is food, water and protection provided.

Also by planting the right kind and height of trees and shrubs for nesting, and providing nesting materials, food and shelter, certain birds can be enticed to your yard.

While touring the butterfly habitat at the Master Gardener Victoria Educational Gardens (VEG) at the airport during next month's garden tour, detailed information and handouts will be available on how to best attract butterflies in this area.

The gardens of Richard and Laura Nolen, for instance, possess features to attract wildlife birds, hummingbirds and monarch butterflies. Other interesting features include elements of sustainability such as composting, and a daily garden journal to note daily visitors to the yard.

The gardens of Donald and Pat Plowman highlight fragrance, an aspect that attracts certain butterflies and is pleasing to humans. Night-blooming cestrum, an easy care semitropical shrub that is traditionally planted under a bedroom window, as well as butterfly gingers in the Plowman garden and VEG, can be good nectaring flowers for certain moths and butterflies, and have a sublime perfume. Piper auritum, a relative of black pepper and kava kava, known by Anglos as the Root Beer plant, is also a host plant for certain swallowtail butterflies that may venture into the region.

The milkweed family, seen at VEG, contains a number of plants suitable for monarch caterpillar hosting as well as nectaring. Monarchs as well as queens are able to consume this toxic plant as a caterpillar and store the plant toxin in certain areas of their body, rendering both the caterpillar and butterfly distasteful to most predators.

The true butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is a perennial native plant in northwest Victoria County. It has beautiful bright orange flowers good for nectaring and needs sandy well-drained soil. Contrary to popular belief and name, it is not a common selection by monarch females for caterpillar hosting as it is sapless, with less toxin to protect caterpillars from predators.

The milkweed commonly sold in area nurseries is the tropical or Mexican milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. It is hosted on readily by butterflies, but is not native to this area. In fact, its native habitat is more than 250 miles south of here. It is possible the occurrence of this plant as an ornamental far north of its natural territory may affect monarch migration. The native with orange flowers and/or the new silky gold variety can be planted in multiple plant clusters of five to nine plants for a striking full bush effect. Pruning will increase the bushy appearance of this plant.

This year, monarch caterpillars were found hosting in VEG in mid-February, indicating a year-round non-migrating population has already been established. Monarchs have now been found all over the world - even in England on occasion. They are swept far on air streams. African, Australian and the giant blue-flowered tropical giant Indian milkweeds all provide hosting opportunities for monarchs and these varieties can also be seen in the VEG butterfly habitat. Later, plans for VEG call for a native milkweed bed to aid in the preservation and identification of these important plants.

Buddleja, commonly know as butterfly bush, are temperate perennials. These are good nectaring magnets that can grow quite large, and all but lindleyana require January pruning. The varieties found to do best during our hot summers, and attract the most butterflies, appear to be white and gold varieties. Sungold, petite snow butterfly bush, and dwarf blue stay relatively small (less than 5 feet). Lindleyana can grow quite large, up to 35 feet, or can be cut back. They have drooping blue blooms and look better hanging down from a larger bush. Other areas have had nectaring success with black knight. It is a good idea to mulch these plants well to keep the roots cool.

Various, but not all passifloras make good host plants. The following varieties seen at VEG will attract Gulf fritillaries and spectacular zebra long-wings to your garden almost year-round. Three native varieties are: Passiflora foetida var. gossypiifolia (the native variety Corona del Christo); Passiflora suberosa or the cork-barked passionflower; and Passiflora incarnata known as the May pop. The former two are less invasive and less showy, but easy to grow. Passionflower varieties not hosted on - and not recommended - include the red passionflower and the incense passionflower.

These are only a few of many interesting plants to be seen the first weekend in May on the Annual Garden Tour at selected local homes and in VEG on May 1-2. For further information call 575-4581.