This weekend I’m headed to my parent’s house to dig a piece of old “ham and eggs” Lantana camara too add to my perennial border. Over the past year, this border has gone from color themed to survival themed as it tries to endure the cats, dogs, and marauding chickens who will scratch up just about any kind of mulch, potting soil, and newly planted specimen. Just yesterday I found 21 bamboo stakes broken off at the ground, where they marked precious, assorted, volunteer seedlings, with all residents of the property claiming no idea as to how it happened!
Thankfully the most beautiful perennial border I ever created in my life (The Rainbow Border, circa 1990’s) was comprised of nothing but free, Texas Tough, pass-a-long plants that I propagated and divided so I still have hope and faith.
In addition to the flowers, I love the hummingbirds and butterflies that are attracted to my summer border. As a matter of fact, when a spot opened up, I immediately thought of lantana for the butterflies.
Who doesn’t love butterflies? They are nothing less than flying flowers. Literally floating jewels in the garden. Even most non gardeners love to see butterflies. Most everybody knows about the magic transformation from a homely caterpillar to a striking butterfly, but many aren’t aware of the dependency of each butterfly to certain nectar and often very specific host plants. Butterfly gardens have become immensely popular around the country in recent years. And many of us do try to plant nectar plants for them so we can watch them in our garden. But it’s just as important to either grow host plants for their larva or preserve wild spaces in nature for things to grow naturally for them to munch on. I’m always surprised when gardeners rush to grab insecticide when the first thing munches on a plant without first stopping to find out which critter it is. I wouldn’t fault them for killing a spider mite, aphid, scale, or white fly, but punishing butterfly larva is a bit cruel and unusual. Everything in nature has a purpose, so I’d be hesitant to kill anything without pondering the unintended outcome. Even most of our common weeds are host plants for specific butterflies. And never forget that almost every baby bird is fed soft succulent caterpillars. It’s really quite simple. The plants attract the bugs that attract the birds and other predators while the birds spread the seed of the plants to make more and start the cycle over.
If you want to attract the most butterflies possible to your garden, consider planting anything in the verbena family (Verbenaceae) which includes lantana, butterfly bush, verbena, and vitex. Other plants I find most helpful in giving butterflies their sugar fix are butterfly weed, liatris, zinnias, pentas, purple cone flower, phlox, and bachelor’s buttons.
Naturally I’m biased, and it depends on where you live, but here are a few of my favorite butterflies.
Black Swallowtail: This showy butterfly is black with rows of yellow spots and hosts on members of the carrot family including both dill and fennel.
Buckeye: This smallish brown butterfly has big showy blue eyeballs or “buckeyes” on his wings. It looks like a miniature version of an io moth. The black spiny larvae are partial to the snapdragon family and feed on the false foxglove (Agalinas) in my pocket prairie.
Giant Swallowtail: This is the biggest of our butterflies and is black with a big yellow “smile” across its wings. The larva (which look like bird droppings!) of this behemoth feed exclusively on members of the citrus family. Although they will feed on cultivated citrus, in the wild they rely on Hercules club (Zanthoxylum) and wafer ash (Ptelea).
Gulf Fritillary: Everybody should plant a passion vine of some sort in their landscape so they can follow the complete lifecycle of this tropical orange butterfly. You’ll get to watch them lay eggs, hatch, munch, mature, form chrysalids, and hatch, all before your very eyes. It’s generally a non-stop show from summer until frost. Despite being lunch, the passion vine grows right back to keep the show going. Although there are many showy species, hybrids, and cultivars, the native maypop (Passiflora incarnata) attracts the most butterflies and bees.
Monarch: Certainly everybody loves the beautiful monarch and even most kids recognize it. It’s our Texas state insect after all. Monarchs are reliant on different species of milkweed (Asclepias) for their nourishment so make sure and keep plenty around.
Sulfur: I associate bright yellow sulfur butterflies with Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus) and red spider lilies (Lycoris) as they never seem to be without them when they are in bloom. A number of years ago I was lucky enough to see a stray orange barred sulfur on a ‘Pam Puryear’ pink Turk’s cap at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center in Nacogdoches. It was incredible. Apparently they belong in the tropics. I think he blew in with a hurricane. Sulfur butterfly larva feed on members of the pea family (Fabaceae).
Tiger Swallowtail: This black and yellow striped beauty is my second favorite butterfly. It’s not at all uncommon to see the all (with barely discernible tiger stripes) black female variation of it too. Tiger swallowtail larva feed on ash (Fraxinus sp.), black cherry (Prunus serotina), and many others.
Zebra Swallowtail: It really has to do with geography, but my favorite butterfly in the world is the delicate zebra swallowtail. Unfortunately most don’t get to experience it as it only occurs in East Texas and portions of the U.S where pawpaws (Asimina) are native. Like the gulf fritillary, the zebra swallowtail is also a tropical butterfly that is forever linked with the rare occurrence of a cold hardy native tropical species left over from our ancient warmer milder days. Luckily native pawpaws (Asimina triloba) line the creeks where I live. These exquisite little creatures start off as a bottomland woodland butterfly and then venture into sunny uplands looking for nectar producing blooms. I see them most often on vitex, verbena, and lantana.
To learn more about Texas butterflies check out a copy of my favorite butterfly book. It has great pictures and great information about them. I keep it handy at all times.
Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas (1996, University of Texas Press) by John and Gloria Tveten.