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Audubon News

Natives attract butterflies

May 31, 2008
Butterflies and moths are an important link in the nature chain. In the caterpillar or pupa stage, they are consumed by songbirds, bats and flycatchers, among others. Many caterpillars aid the decomposing cycle by shredding fallen leaves and fruits, and eating dead wood. Moths and butterflies also pollinate many flowering plants and trees.

Planting season is here, so I want to suggest plants to add to your garden that would attract butterflies and moths or be host plants for their larvae. Normally, I don’t include the Latin names for species, but I will now so that you can ask your nursery people specifically for the native plants. Many of these have been cultivated into a variety of colors. I am planting mostly native plants now on my property. These will attract native birds, bugs and bats. If we want to continue to have a wide variety of species, we need to feed them food that they can digest.

Many butterflies like the milkweeds. Just a few are swallowtails, Monarchs, Checkered and Cabbage Whites, Common and Orange Sulphurs, Spring Azures, Question Marks, Mourning Cloaks, Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, Viceroys and Queens. In September, school children collect the chrysalises of Monarchs to watch butterflies emerge from them. The Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, grows in the dryer soil of fields and roadsides. Its leaves are oblong or oval and gray underneath. The flowers are fragrant. The Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnate, likes wet soils of swamps and shores. These plants, from two to six feet high, have long and narrow leaves and flowers from pink to purple.

Here’s an easy one to get mixed up with a non-native. The Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberose, is a native milkweed, but the Butterfly Bush is not. We have both in the Butterfly Garden at the Jamestown Audubon. The native plant has bright orange flowers and only grows to be one to two feet high. It is our only member of the milkweed family with alternate leaves and juice without any color (unlike the white of the others). It impressed me that when I was working in the garden last summer, the butterflies would first go to this plant before others.

I have photographs of the Butterfly Weed with a mass of caterpillars, which will become Monarch butterflies. All of the above milkweeds attract both butterflies and caterpillars.

The Bergamots attract bees and hummingbirds, as well as butterflies (Hummingbird moth, Sphinx Moth and the Tiger Swallowtail). There is the Beebalm, or Oswego Tea, Monarda didyma, with reddish flowers and Purple Bergamot, Monarda media. They are members of the mint family, so have square stems and grow about one to five feet high and like part sun. They have spread very nicely from my garden into the meadow.

Garden Phlox, Phlox paniculata, which also attracts butterflies, likes shade. It blooms from summer to fall and grows from two to six feet high. The native flowers in the wild are magenta to pink, but have been cultivated into many colors.

In earlier articles, I talked about the importance of Spotted Joe-pye Weed, Eupatorium maculatum, to birds. They also attract butterflies — many butterflies. These very tall plants (three to seven feet tall) have purple or pink flowers in the fall. Their leaves are whorled, which means that the leaves are in a circle around a single point on the stem. In the wild, they are found in swampy areas.

The Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia serotina, attracts Great Spangled Fritillaries and Zebra Longwings. These are common flowers in fields and roadsides and can be bought in nurseries. They are daisy-like with black centers and yellow-to-orange petals.

Meadowsweet, Spiraea latifolia, with its fern-like leaves, is another love of butterflies. The Spring Azure larva feeds on this member of the rose family. It grows two to six feet high and likes moist or rocky habitats in the wild. Its flower clusters are white or pale pink.

Verbena has spiked flowers, square stems, and spikes of white or blue flowers. They grow from two to six feet tall and can be found in thickets, dry fields or roadsides. White Vervain, Vervain unticifolia; Blue Vervain, Vervain hastate; and Narrow-leaved Vervain, Vervain simplex, are the Verbena species in our area. Look for the Great Spangled Fritillary, Julia, Giant Swallowtail and White Peacock on these.

I have given you a lot of details. There are so many butterflies and moths. I’m personally going to keep this article as a reference tool when I want to identify a species on one of these plants.

The Plant Exchange on June 7 from 1 to 3 p.m. is a good opportunity to possibly acquire some good butterfly plants and visit Audubon’s butterfly garden. To participate, just bring some of your extra or unwanted garden plants to Audubon and exchange them for others! If you don’t have anything to bring, you can donate instead.

The Jamestown Audubon Center and Sanctuary hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sundays are free and we are open from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Our location is 1600 Riverside Road, off Route 62 between Jamestown and North Warren. Call 569-2345 or visit our Web sites, and

Ann Beebe is a volunteer at the Audubon.

Article Photos

Photo by Ann Beebe
Above: Beebalm, or Oswego Tea, in a flower.



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