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Gardens Can Yield Flowers, Butterflies
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
Many plants are good for attracting butterflies.
The hummingbird clethra is a butterfly plant you need to try for beauty, fragrance and ease of growing. It provides spicy-fragrant flowers during July and August when color and fragrance are limited.
The pleasant fragrance permeates the summer garden and spreads great distances, attracting butterflies and bees. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall and spreads 3 to 5 feet. Shiny, dark green leaves yield to autumn tints of yellow and amber, remaining on the plant until late fall.
Building a butterfly garden sanctuary is not difficult. Whether you have a large house with extensive gardens and fields or a small garden apartment with a modest plot of yard space, anyone can attract and play host to butterflies.
Last year, butterflies seemed fewer, but already they are frequenting the few nectar plants I have in bloom. My children can spend hours watching and identifying swallowtails, viceroys, monarchs and many others.
This year, we have planted the 1997 Mississippi Medallion winner Melampodium and 1996 winner New Gold lantana. They are joining other favorites including various salvias, pentas, rudbeckias, coneflowers, butterfly bush, butterfly weed, ruellia, zinnias and verbenas.
Your enthusiasm and ability to keep your desire for neatness under control will determine your enjoyment and success. The design possibilities are limitless. You are the artistic director of the production so experiment and have fun.
First, learn about which species of butterflies occur in your particular region of the state and which species of plants they use for nectar and larval food.
Make the most of your natural setting. Butterflies like edges. Planting low flowers at the edge of a lawn and high flowers at the edges of trees or along a fence is a way to enhance edge habitat.
Locate a major part of the garden in a sunny, protected area. Butterflies are cold-blooded and need sun to warm their bodies' temperature enough to fly on cool mornings. They also use the sun for orientation. Place flat stones at various locations in the garden for basking.
Butterflies hate high winds and appreciate windbreaks. If there are any natural structures to temper the buffeting wind, leave them standing, as butterflies will often congregate there on blustery days.
Most butterflies are vagabonds, stopping off temporarily at your garden to partake of food, water and shelter. When food sources disappear, butterflies go elsewhere.
Design gardens with large drifts of color. Butterflies are first attracted to flowers by color, and a large mass is easier to spot. Some experts believe butterflies' favorite color is purple, followed by blue, yellow, white, pink and orange.
If you really love butterflies, learn to provide for their larva too. Admittedly, caterpillars look like worms and will devour the plants grown as larval food. It is well worth it to be able to watch their graceful flight.
Some of the best nectar sources are coreopsis, zinnia, goldenrods and sunflowers. Last year I saw one Joe Pye weed with 20 swallowtails feeding from the flowers. Other key plants are buddleia (butterfly bush), lantana, ruellia, honeysuckle, lobelia, salvia, clematis and hibiscus.
Some of the better larval food sources are dill, parsley, legumes and mustards, clovers, sunflower and ruellia. The leaves of my roses also seem to be a delicacy.
Some trees like cottonwood, red bay, sweet bay, green ash, sycamore, hackberry, black willow and cedar elm also serve as larval food sources.
One of the best books on the subject is "Butterfly Gardening for the South" by Geyata Ajilvsgi. It can't be beat for helping the beginner off to a good start.