BY: Brenda Bolton, Mobile County Master Gardener www.MobileCountyMasterGardeners.org
So, you want a butterfly garden. The phrase calls to mind sun-filled spaces alive with iridescent wings. That’s the vision. Reality may be different. Butterflies prefer perennials, and they really love native perennials, the wilder the better. Native perennials not only offer a more wildflower than hybridized-cookie-cutter vibe, but they are also
Black Swallowtail on Penta by Brenda Bolton
seasonal sleepyheads; they require “down time.” They are the free- spirited flower children, not the zipped-up career kids of the garden. Before you discard your vision, though, remember that a good design can offer year-round enjoyment despite those sleepyheads. That design calls for a mix of seasonal blooms, background or perimeter shrubs, annuals to fill in, and hardscape winter focal points. Otherwise, you can consider an easy butterfly border--a linear, shallow bed of one or two perennials along a sunny fence or building, to let grow au naturel, and simply mulch over it in winter.
This spring’s debut is eagerly anticipated, and we are ready to get out of winter’s isolation and unmask in our gardens. We are fortunate our spring is heralded by the Mobile Botanical Gardens Annual Spring Plant Sale with its range of colorful perennials and flowering shrubs. See sale details at the end of this column. Spring is the time to plant next summer’s and fall’s perennials. Be patient with perennials. The standard rule is that they require three years to multiply and fully develop into thick, beautiful clumps and sweeps of color.
If you want the butterflies to hang around to breed, hatch, feed, pupate, and emerge as a new generation seeking nectar to begin again, you don’t want just a garden. You want a habitat which supports the butterfly’s metamorphosis:
• Sun - a sunlit garden (Butterflies cannot pump their wings for flight without warmth. They need the sun, and so do your perennials);
• Shelter - plants or hardscape structures for shelter (safety from weather or predators);
• Hosts - plants that host the butterfly egg, feed the hatched caterpillar, and provide shelter for the cocooned butterfly while it pupates (Females lay eggs on plants the emerging caterpillar eats—and remember, feeding the caterpillars means sacrificing leaves. A cluster of them can strip a small plant. But leaves recover and plants still thrive.);
• Nectar - plentiful nectar blooms to feed the adult butterfly;
• Warmth - stone or brick surfaces to capture and hold warmth (Butterflies love to sunbathe.);
• Moisture - moisture and shallow, wet, sandy, or muddy pools for “puddling,” an activity male butterflies engage in for moisture and proteins. Habitats nurture butterflies.
Butterflies are attracted by color and seem to prefer yellow, red, and blue blooms. Large sweeps of the same color attract more butterflies than one or two plants stuck here and there. Selecting plants specifically for the butterflies in your area will increase your population. Butterflies “taste” with their feet and love large blooms and the rounded clusters of flowers like verbena, Penta, or native lantana, where they can stand while feeding. Not all beautiful blossoms offer nectar, so choose nectar plants. Use native or proven heritage plants. Finally, anyone interested in butterflies should avoid poisons. Butterflies are insects; insecticides kill them. Even some “organic” treatments kill butterflies. An organic spray that suffocates will suffocate a bee or butterfly as quickly as it kills a pest. Avoid systemics, and use all treatments at dawn or dusk, when butterflies and bees are less active. Here are six of our area’s most common butterflies and the plants they need (N = native plant):
Monarch Alabama's State insect
(Caterpillars eat only milkweed)
Host Plants: Asclepias (N) (viridian, tuberosa, incarnata) (N)
NOTE: The commonly available Asclepia curassavica is not native.
Nectar Plants: native milkweed (N), liatris (N), mint, clover (N), goldenrod (N)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Alabama's State Butterfly
Host Plants: Tulip poplar (N); magnolia (N); birch (N) wild cherry (N) willow (N)
Nectar Plants: buddleia, wild cherry (N), verbena (N), bee balm (N)
Host Plants: bronze fennel, dill, flat parsley
Nectar Plants: buddleia, Penta, Joe-Pye weed (N),
Host Plants: citrus (N)
Nectar Plants: native lantana (N), azalea, goldenrod (N), Joe-Pye(N)
Host Plants: daisy (N), native thistle (N)
Nectar Plants: aster (N), cosmos (N), Liatris (N), coreopsis (N), buddleia, zinnia, Mallow-native hibiscus (N)
Host Plant: passion vine (N)
Nectar Plants: Rudbeckia/ black-eyed susan (N), thistle (N), vetch (N), Joe-Pye (N)
passionflower vine ( N) purple coneflower(N)
Other trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials to use include Native rhododendrons, Chionanthus virginicus, Magnolia asheii, Clethra, Cyrilla racemiflora, hackberry, willow, Porterweed, viburnum, Texas Star hibiscus, Lonicera sempervirens vine, native sage or salvia, cuphea, helianthus.
This is certainly not a complete list and you will find others shown online, but always make sure lists are for our south Alabama coastal climate, zone 8b:
• Alabama Extension, www.aces.edu
• Florida Extension, www.ifas.ufl.edu
• Master Gardener helpline 877-252-4769.
Spring Garden Events
What: Plantasia, MBG Spring Plant Sale
Online Shopping: Feb 19 - Mar 8, 2021
Curbside pickup: March 10, 12, 17
In Person Shopping Mar 18 - 20
Online Shopping: Opens Feb 19, with plants available for pickup in early March
Beefsteak, Cherry Tomato, Heirloom, Slicing Tomato, tomSA
Where: Mobile Botanical Gardens MarketPlace
5151 Museum Drive, Mobile