Butterflies in the Garden - Henry Turner
January 2003

What's flying now (and other observations relevant to butterflies)...

Buster rabbit, chief critter and numero uno mammal chowing down at the Turner pad, suggested that I address the topic of tasty greens to add to your meadow and/or backyard (heaven forbid that you plant something wild in your front yard too). While wanting to humor Buster, a very discriminating cross between a New Zealander and our common cottontail, I thought I'd slant the plant topic a bit more toward butterflies rather than discuss his favorite victuals.

If we failed to get off our keisters this fall and kill our lawns, turn our soil, mix in several tons of compost, manure, greensand and whatever else we dare add, then a dry winter's day is still a premier time to prepare space for growing plants that benefit wildlife. And if you already have a wild area with unimproved soil, you may need to do very little. It seems too late to consider planting wildflowers that overwinter in rosette form, you say. Well, September is the best time for planting most wildflowers. But having helped Molly make a buzillion seed balls, which she will continue to plant as late as February, I've been reminded that there are natives that you can still plant. I didn't plant frostweed or cowpen daisy seeds until last February and they grew like gangbusters (and since frostweed doesn't flower till late fall and cowpen daisy till late summer on, it worked out great). So check the native seeds and plants available at the better-known sources and get wild! In the meantime, here are some things we might think about.

If you want to see more butterflies in your wildscape, it helps if you have a fair balance of host plants (those which females choose to lay their eggs on) and nectar plants. And it's not as if there's some sort of scientific ratio. As Malcolm Beck likes to say about making compost, it's so easy to do that it's hard to fail. Female butterflies have a superb knack - by smelling out and then confirming by tasting with their feet - for locating any host plants you put out. Make it easier for them, however, by planting each type in groups of two or three. As for the best host plants for various species, you can find a number under my discussion of individual butterfly species (see "Quick jump to Butterfly List"). The easiest ones to start with are those for the Black and Giant Swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries, the Crescents - Pearl, Phaon, and Texas -- Monarchs and Queens, Cabbage White, and some of the Sulphurs. You'll certainly attract the latter with some partridge pea, and a little red clover and alfalfa along the edge of a bed will be much appreciated. And you probably already have some of the host trees growing nearby - hackberries, elms, ashes, or willows. To keep things looking natural, consider mixing your host plantings in with your other native and alien species - yes, I did use that forbidden word "alien". For as repugnant as planting a nonnative might be, if you wish to see more butterflies in your neighborhood, you'll find a few aliens are invaluable, particularly for nectaring.

This is partly because some have superb nectar and bloom from spring to frost, thus providing a constant supply of food, especially during the heat of July and August when most sensible natives have temporarily gone dormant. I'm thinking especially of the following excellent nectar plants:

  • butterfly bush: at one time or another many butterflies choose its nectar; the secret is to not over water them.
  • red pentas: you should naturally grow most bfly plants in full sun; yet here's one that does best in and that Swallowtails and Monarchs will come to in afternoon shade. For gardeners they, like Phlox paniculata, love richly composted soil and regular watering.
  • Verbena bonariensis: this three to four-foot tall South American (goodness, I can feel local naturalists cringing as I type) verbena is hands-down the best attractant this side of Eupatorium greggi - at least for smaller and medium-sized bflies in my garden. Restrain your watering, for the stems will mildew a bit and they just do better with less.
  • Lantana camera: most species at nurseries are not winter-hardy In our area. This year I'm experimenting with "Miss Huff" to supplement my native lantana. Warning: this cultivar gets really large but doesn't seed out; thus, it blooms longer than our native horrida. And I cannot say enough words of thanks for lavender-flowered, trailing lantana, which is still blooming in December and providing nectar for those overwintering bflies. Again, low water and poor soil keep these happy though a little compost won't hurt them a bit.

Note that with one exception the above aliens don't need a lot of water (but remember, all perennials need more regular watering and attention during the scorching months, even natives during their first year or two).

There appear to be a buzillion variables involved in the matter of which plants are - what is the cliché-phrase? -- oh, yes, the nursery shopper says something like, "I want only the BEST nectar plants you have, madam!" Well, well. Consider:

  1. This year Gregg's blue mistflower (Eupatorium greggi) drew very few bflies in my garden or in the Botanic Garden's Trial Garden. This is possibly the best nectar plant in our part of the world! It didn't help that very few Queens (which try to monopolize the plants) showed up this year. But even the Monarchs, who are also fanatic about mistflower, seemed to prefer a bit of everything else this year. Who knows why. The only thing you can be sure of is that next year it will be different.
  2. What you read about nectar plants in many butterfly books does not necessarily work in our area. I grew Joe Pye weed; it was covered with blooms from mid-July through August. Perhaps one butterfly tried it out. A Eupatorium native to much of the eastern U.S., but our local Eupatoriums probably work better.
  3. In my experiment with Joe Pye weed I was probably guilty of violating the following. Just because a great nectar plant doesn't seem to attract the first year after it's planted, don't jerk it up and compost it! The three hot-pink (I know, I know) Phlox paniculata that I planted year before last drew nary a Swallowtail in their first summer, that of '01. This summer, the Swallowtails couldn't get enough of them. Even the Monarchs liked them. The first summer after I planted red pentas you couldn't beg a bfly to nectar on them; summers since, they provide the most popular watering hole in town. Herewith appears Henry's theory about nectar plants (I'm sure a horticulturalist has already written a paper on it): some plants, particularly hybrids, appear to spend the first year getting established and seem to not produce much nectar that year. In subsequent years they do fine. So be patient. At least for a second year. Then jerk 'em!
  4. Somewhat related to item three, many natives appear to not produce much nectar (or perhaps the quality isn't as good or something) when grown in soil other than the native caliche, gravel, sand, or other lousy soils that they naturally grow in. So if you're lucky enough to have a meadow area with lousy soil, enjoy it, for your natives will produce tons of nectar. Gayfeathers are notorious in this regard. Clearly they flop and twist in garden soil. And while I planted some in an area with wretched soil, yet they seem averse to the very idea of producing nectar. Maybe my theory will yet apply. I've even grown a buttonbush at the bottom of a sloping bed, one that stays quite moist. Never fertilized. No soil amendments. Seems a close approximation to those near Greer Island, though standing water is lacking. Hmmm. Bees like it. Occasional bfly. But after two summers, I'm beginning to wonder why this marvelous, native source of nectar isn't drawing more bflies. Ongoing research project, but it's hard (I won't add presumptuous) to try to duplicate nature.
  5. Individual species of bflies seem to prefer certain species of plants for nectar: Queens and Monarchs love Eupatorium and gayfeather; small Crescents adore zexmenia, Texas frogfruit and asters; Swallowtails love Phlox (paniculata and drummondii); Gulf Fritillaries just cannot get enough of Mexican sunflower (Tithonia); and - you didn't hear it here first - virtually all bflies find nourishment on lantana, native or hybrid.
  6. Step Right Up and Get Your List of Hot Nectar Plants! Can't-miss native perennials include: zexmenia, maximilian sunflower, goldenrod, mistflower (Eupatorium greggi is first choice; also havanense, coelestinum, serotinum), lantana, frostweed, cowpen daisy, purple coneflower (purpura, angustifolia, pallida), Phlox pilosa and drummondii, Engelmann daisy, butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), antelope horns (A. asperula), green milkweed (A. viridas), and Mexican milkweed (A. curassavica, technically an alien; all milkweeds except Mexican milkweed MUST be in well-drained sandy or loamy soil), black-foot daisy (water only till it's rooted and then leave it alone; does best in awful soil), gayfeather (sandy or limestone/caliche soil), Verbena rigida (often called tuber vervain; give it a bed all its own as it spreads by rooting at the nodes), fall asters (lots of good natives like A. oblongifolius, heath aster, A. ericoides, and Texas aster, A texanus), Turk's cap, rockrose (Pavonia), Salvia coccinea (also the cultivar "indigo spires", which Monarchs like), and buttonbush (hmmm). Excellent annuals: consider the aliens zinnia and orange cosmos (sulphureus) - all types of butterflies use cosmos, even monarchs - and, if you have room, add the cultivar Mexican sunflower (your Gulf Fritillaries will thank you and thank you). You must have some black-eyed susan (if you prefer a perennial susan, look for the cultivar "goldstrum"). Finally let's be a little daring with good natives like clammyweed (sandy soil), Texas thistle (also a host plant for the Painted Lady), and Indian blanket (though in remotely decent soil it can create a mass of foliage that will smother everything around it). I'm experimenting this year with some natives I've not grown before (they're reputedly good nectar sources): huisache daisy and barbara's buttons.

Naturally, there are a number of good native flowers that I've not mentioned here since most of us only have yards, not meadows, in which to attract butterflies. If you have trouble locating reputable sources for seeds or native perennials, email me and I'll gladly send you a list of sources to choose from.

What's been flying lately:

Dec 2; 70 deg; sunshine

Today Dale Clark reported seeing a solitary male Monarch making its way south/southwest. He also found a Monarch caterpillar in its final instar or stage just prior to pupating. Obviously it won't survive freezing weather.

In my garden today all the gang came out to enjoy the warmth. Yesterday morning I found two Skippers, a Sachem and a Eufala, sunning themselves on leaves of the Mexican plum. But today saw a number of Skippers on the move. A Sleepy Orange dominated the yard in the morning (there's nothing sleepy about them cause they fly fast like all Sulphurs; the name comes from markings on the top side of their wings that resemble a closed eye). It fed for what seemed forever on the lavender, trailing lantana. Later in the afternoon a Queen suddenly arrived and joined in the feast. Instead of going south, the Queen will likely die with the first hard freeze. And even later in the day a Gulf Fritillary squeezed in to nectar but seemed to prefer the Turk's Cap. Needless to say, a Texas Crescent continued to patrol the whole yard, never hesitating to let other butterflies (even though they're different species) know that this was its territory.

Dec 10; cloudy and wet week so far

Nothing flying. Will check this Friday and Saturday when the sun comes out and make a note of the temp if I see something.

By the way, I noticed several of the Gulf Frit caterpillars still functioning. One of the larger ones finally spun a silk pad to suspend itself from on the trellis that the passion vine is growing on. It began pupating last week when evening temps were regularly near freezing. Also, I've put several rotting bananas and pears (having slit them open for easy access) on top of the compost pile for those overwintering types that come out on a warm, sunny day.

Dec. 15, sunny and 70 degrees

A Texas Crescent brazenly flew past me to nectar on late-blooming, native Texas aster today. Since little else is blooming in abundance now except for trailing lantana, there is little choice of nectar. Shortly after, an Orange Sulphur blitzed through the back yard, hardly pausing, as if to say, "I'm headed for greener pastures; you don't have much food here!" I called back, "I wish you luck, but you'll be back!"

Dec. 22, sunny and high 60's.

He/She was back. So too was the Texas Crescent.

Books to read:

Here are the most useful guides I know of to help you plan and develop your own butterfly garden or meadow or to learn more about our butterflies. Remember that both the Tarrant County Butterfly Society (see "More Info") and the Dallas County Lepidopterists' Society (see link below) meet monthly and often have field trips in which you are quite welcome to participate.

Butterfly Gardening for the South by Geyata Ajilvsgi. 1990. Taylor Publishing Company.
This remains one of the most useful resources for anyone wishing to begin gardening to attract butterflies. It has a heavy emphasis on Texas, and differentiates among the butterflies commonly found in each part of the state and discusses most of the useful native plants for each area. It also includes a chapter on photographing butterflies.

Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John and Gloria Tveten. 1996. University of Texas Press.
O.K This has nothing to do with the Cross Timbers, you say. Well, that's so except that the photographs and the lengthy discussion of each species make this book a gem. What's more, there are some super photos of many of those larvae you see and wish that you could identify! (Photos of butterfly larvae are hard to find. Another decent collection can be found in Donald and Lillian Stokes' The Butterfly Book, pp. 34-5. See also the Dallas County web site listed below.)

Butterflies through Binoculars: The West by Jeffrey Glassberg. 2001. Oxford University Press.
If you want one handbook to carry in the field, get this book. Good photos and careful description of each species with precise notes as to the differences between similar species. Also contains maps showing areas in which each species is commonly found as well as indication of the number of broods usually in that area. He also indicates the general habitat of species and common larval plants used.

Four Wings and a Prayer by Sue Halpern. 2001. Random House.
A thoroughly documented account of the monarch migration -- a history of the various theories about it, all cast within the narrative of a personal journey. A very good read.

Native Texas Plants by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowski. 1997. Gulf Publishing Company.
Buried within this superb discussion of native plants are suggested plants for attracting butterflies ("Wildlife Garden Plan", pp.116-121). Discussion of individual plants will often mention their relative value to butterfly gardening (e.g., "Wafer ash is an important tree for butterfly gardeners.")

Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife by Noreen Dalmude and Kelly Conrad Bender. 1999. Texas Parks and Wildlife Press.
A focused discussion of gardening for butterflies (pp. 93 ff.), followed by a good list of not only the host plants but also the nectar plants preferred by some of the more common butterflies in Texas.

Sites to visit: -- excellent site of Dale Clark, local lepidopterist. -- have a question about monarchs? -- answers to a trillion questions about monarchs. Most important, each spring they compile an updated map based on current sightings so that you can follow the migration of the monarchs north. They also map the journey south. -- the North American Butterfly Association; much info. -- some practical help on butterflies and gardening to attract them. -- garden guidelines by Charlene Rowell of Heard Museum and Tina Dombrowski of Texas Discovery Gardens. -- list of some useful host and nectar plants.

For more information, you may contact:

Tarrant County Butterfly Society (817) 923-8474

Joann Karges or (817) 923-8474

Henry Turner or (817) 922-9484

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