Butterfly gardening is a popular topic. Private and public gardens love to create butterfly gardens, artfully arranging combinations of parsley, fennel, milkweed and flowering nectar plants. Parsley and fennel are two well-known garden host plants for butterflies and of course milkweed for monarch butterflies is a hot topic these days.
|A newly emerged red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis)|
Yet not far from these butterfly gardens is a plant that supports far more butterflies and moths than those 3 plants combined. It is a plant that is overlooked, under appreciated and downright disparaged at times. Meet black cherry, Prunus serotina.
Black cherry is native throughout Georgia, from the mountains to the coastal plain. It is considered a medium sized tree although it can reach a height of almost 100 feet in ideal conditions. It blooms in April - long drooping racemes of creamy white flowers that are popular with native bees and other early pollinators. Pollinated flowers become clusters of red-black fruit that are eaten by birds (and even humans).
|April flowers of Prunus serotina|
|Ripening fruit and caterpillar-chewed leaves|
According to research by Doug Tallamy and his team, the Prunus genus supports at least 456 different species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). Native cherry trees like the black cherry are host plants for Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Red-spotted purples, Cecropia moths, Coral and Striped Hairstreaks, White Admirals and many others.
You might already have it in your yard. Look around for it.
|Furcula caterpillar (with fungus) on Prunus serotina|
How do parsley, fennel and milkweed stack up against black cherry? Both parsley and fennel are in the Apiaceae family which supports less than 50 native Lepidoptera species in the whole family (across all genera in that family). Milkweed (Asclepias) supports about 12.
So there you have it, 456 species for Prunus compared to 50 for parsley/fennel and 12 for milkweed. No disrespect to the monarch and other butterflies, but how many butterflies do you want to support? Make sure that a black cherry is not far from your butterfly garden and your impact will be exponentially better than without it.