Sunday, June 18, 2017

Supporting Adult Butterflies in the Garden

I’ve written a few posts about butterfly gardening, but those posts have mostly focused on helping people to identify native host plants that help butterfly and moth larvae grow into the beautiful adult creatures that we love. Only one post has really touched on the concept of feeding adult butterflies; it is a post from 2014 entitled “Native Plants for Butterfly and PollinatorGardens.” It has 3 printable lists, by the way, so it’s still a keeper for planning a garden in Georgia across all 3 bloom seasons (spring, summer, and fall).

What I’ve noticed in my own garden lately is that different flowers support different types of insects. Now that might sound perfectly logical to you once I’ve said it, but how many of us consider this aspect when choosing plants for our gardens? I’ve been watching a silver spotted skipper love on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), its long proboscis easily sliding down the flower’s long tubes to get to the nectar.

Not every butterfly will partake of the wild bergamot, however. Only those insects with the ability to reach way in will be able to get the nectar (long-tongued bees, butterflies/moths with a long proboscis). The ones that can’t reach it won’t even try; they know better. Several feet away, a whole different set of insects are enjoying the flowers that they can reach: the blue hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), the black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), several kinds of Coreopsis, scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea), orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and the phlox (Phlox sp).

Pearl crescent on Coreopsis
Coreopsis flowers are good for
short-tongued insects

Another sight recently reinforced for me the concept that flower diversity is a concept for gardeners to consider even for the adult butterflies. A new neighborhood is under construction and, as you may expect, a splashy new entrance is the first thing they built. This one has a long and loud sweep of bright pink begonias. It looks great and really caught my attention! But floral-wise, it’s a big dud for insects except for few of them. (And given that the plants were probably grown with neonicotinoids, well it’s not too great for the ones that will visit it either.)

What to do, what to do? Research is the answer, of course, but where to start? Perhaps you’d like to have certain butterflies: common buckeye butterflies are really neat, let’s start with them (assuming they are naturally in your range, of course). To the Internet! I often use There you can find a section called “Adult food” and for common buckeye it says:

Buckeye on Coreopsis verticillata
Adult Food: Favorite nectar sources are composites including aster, chicory, gumweed, knapweed, and tickseed sunflower. Dogbane, peppermint, and other flowers are also visited. (You have to figure from the common names what plants they mean.)

Here you’ll see that the best flowers are “composites” which are flowers in the aster family (Asteraceae); that includes the black-eyed Susan that I already have and the coreopsis as well as a wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) just starting to flower. I might also add other daisy-like flowers like fleabane (Erigeron). My aster family flowers also support butterflies like pearl crescents, skippers, Eastern tailed-blues, some of the hairstreaks, and American ladies. 

I’d also like to attract some of the larger butterflies like spicebush and tiger swallowtails. The website gives this information for native plants that the two of them use for nectar: Adult Food: Nectar from jewelweed, thistles, milkweed, azalea, dogbane, Joe-Pye weed and sweet pepperbush.  

Pipevine butterfly on Salvia coccinea
Personal observation is that they also like bottlebrush buckeye, mountain mint, purple coneflowers, and devil’s walking stick in the summer. I was thrilled this week to discover a pipevine swallowtail visiting my blue hyssop and scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea), both plants are well suited to big butterflies. By the way, a friend passed along this website as helpful with identify the large, dark-colored swallowtails.

Occasionally you might come across some startling information like this for the red-spotted purple butterfly: Adult Food: Sap flows, rotting fruit, carrion, dung, and occasionally nectar from small white flowers including Spiraea and Viburnum. A good way to support them is to put out fruit in trays; Butterflies and Blooms in the Briar Patch in Eatonton has good luck with this approach (and it attracts a number of other species). At my house, possums seem to be the ones enjoying my fruit offerings. Another good resource on adult foods is this PDF brochure available from GA DNR.

Bottom line: If you want a diversity of adult butterflies and moths to visit your garden, you need to plant a diversity of flowering plants. A sweep of begonias isn’t going to cut it no matter how big it is. Include members of the aster family (asters, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, eupatoriums, goldenrods, blazingstars, ironweed) for the small and the short-tongued critters. Add some deep flowers (salvias, azaleas, thistles, milkweeds, cardinal flower, sweet pepperbush (Clethra)) for those that have long tongues. If you can find pesticide-free plants or seeds, also grow powerful flowering annuals like zinnias and sunflowers; they seem to support a wide range of adults.

Cloudless sulphur and tiger swallowtail are long-tongued
butterflies that use thistle (this one is a native Cirsium altissimum)
You should also plant for a variety across all 3 seasons. Flowers that feed them in the spring have gone to seed come fall. If you choose native nectar plants, many of them will also be host plants - double duty for smaller spaces.

Enhance your efforts each year by observing who visits each type of flower. For example, I planted Coreopsis tinctoria (an annual that is probably not native to Georgia), but I see very few insects on it. Next year I won’t grow it on purpose (which means it will volunteer like crazy) and will plan instead on trying something more local.

1 comment:

  1. What a great, informative article, as usual! Im so grateful for the information and resources you’ve provided here. Not sure you have your equal in concise but jam-packed informational blogs! Thank you!