North Carolina has 20 species of milkweed, a plant monarch butterflies need when they are caterpillars. Don’t be scared off by the height of the wild versions. “Most milkweeds get no more than two to three feet tall,” says Jim Matthews, with the Center of Biodiversity of Studies at Reedy Creek Nature Preserve in northeast Charlotte.
By Amber Veverka
Attracting more butterflies to your yard starts with choosing better plants – and by providing food and habitat for all stages of a butterfly’s life. That’s the message local experts have for Carolinas gardeners who want to get a jump on next year’s butterfly garden now as fall begins, creating a haven for some favorite winged wildlife.
Just say no to butterfly bush
And building a better butterfly garden starts with passing up that most common of butterfly-garden picks: The butterfly bush, or Buddleia. You know the one: A tall shrub with nodding plumes of purple, white or magenta flowers. Yes, it draws butterflies, says Charlotte school garden leader Carla Vitez, but it’s also an aggressive spreader, which sows itself freely and elbows out native species.
A painted lady butterfly feeds on zinnia nectar. Photo: Mecklenburg County Natural Resources.
“Butterfly bush is an invader and …it’s on the rise. People do not need to be planting it,” says Vitez, part of a team of which created a video, “Green Invaders,” about local invasive species, that’s still used by park and recreation officials and schools for education. Instead, Vitez points gardeners to graceful native flowers that feed caterpillars and adult butterflies alike, species such as tall, back-of-the-border Joe Pye weed. There’s even a compact form of Joe Pye called ‘Baby Joe,” a perennial with royal purple blossoms that butterflies practically fight over.
But before you get to butterflies, think caterpillars. That larval stage is “when they really eat a lot,” says Vitez.
And the No. 1 butterfly garden pick for feeding the caterpillars? Milkweed. But don’t panic – if you’re not into an open-meadow kind of look, there are plenty of milkweed varieties that look showy enough for a front yard border, says Larry Mellichamp, UNC Charlotte biology professor and director of UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens. And even among the wild types, most “get no more than two to three feet tall,” says Jim Matthews, with the Center of Biodiversity of Studies at Reedy Creek Nature Preserve in northeast Charlotte.
Monarch butterflies seek out milkweed to lay their eggs. Photo: K. Sweaney
“Monarchs – they’re the butterflies to kind of aim for,” Mellichamp says. “If you want to have monarchs to visit your garden you need to plant milkweed plants.” Monarchs lay eggs only on milkweed and their leaves are what the young caterpillars must eat. Adult butterflies of all types sip nectar from milkweed flowers.
Besides the common mauve-flowered milkweed, there’s another native, the hot-orange Asclepias tuberosa, or orange butterfly weed, that adult butterflies love. It’s often seen in unmowed fields or near roadside ditches and it’s a knockout in a hot-color flower border. Butterflies of all species will flock this bloomer, and its cousins, such as tropical butterfly weed, Asclepias currasavica, a fast grower that dies back in the winter but which will return in the spring.
A cloudless sulphur butterfly sips from orange butterfly weed. Photo: Mecklenburg Natural Resources.
Plant for caterpillars, too
If Joe Pye and milkweed form the backbone of a butterfly garden, it’s also important to fill it out with other caterpillar food – members of the dill family. That’s parsley, fennel and dill, all devoured by swallowtail caterpillars, who will begin life in their tiny black-with-with-a-splash-of-white “instar” form and then, after moultings, wear their green-black-yellow striped skin until they form a chrysalis. Fall is a great time to scatter dill seed for sprouting the following spring.
Black swallowtail caterpillar
Parsley is slow to germinate, so it may be easiest to buy plants and start a patch that way. Parsley is a biennial, so it will be the leafy herb you expect the first year and then grow taller to set seed the following year. Given moisture and sun, you can expect it to come back year after year. Go for Italian, or flat-leafed, parsley, not the curly kind.
Pick the plant your butterfly prefers
Once you have the larval food, you can add showy, nectar-rich perennials such as phlox, verbena, cosmos, salvia and asters to draw adult butterflies of a wide range of species.
Some plants to attract specific kinds of butterflies include:
The native maypop, or passionflower,
which though a rampant climber can be trained up a trellis and controlled with mowing around the perimeter, will draw brilliant orange gulf fritillary butterflies, whose caterpillars feed only on maypop leaves.
Passionflower at McDowell Creek Greenway. Photo: Mecklenburg Natural Resources.
- Button bush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, which Mellichamp calls one of the “top five native butterfly shrubs.” The large bush enjoys damp soil and yellow-and-black tiger swallowtails swarm its blossoms, which look like little white meterorites.
- Dutchman’s pipevine, Aristolochia, attracts the dramatic, black pipevine swallowtail, whose caterpillars feed on the leaves.
- Summer-blooming Liatris, with spiky purple blossoms, is an easy-to-grow favorite with the painted lady butterfly.
Liatris ‘Blazing star.’ Photo: Tim Treadwell
- Goldenrod – the showy golden-flowered early-fall bloomer, not the inconspicuous ragweed that causes allergies – is a favored food source for mourning cloak butterflies.
So plant for larvae, plant for adults, and remember a third thing: Watch the spraying. Insecticides that kill bugs we dislike almost certainly will kill butterflies, too, and that has an impact not just on the butterflies homeowners can draw to their property, but on populations as a whole. Some species, such a monarchs, are on the decline – so they need all the help they can get.
Want to learn more?
Good books on creating butterfly habitat include “Butterfly Gardening for the South,” by Geyata Ajilvsgi and “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants,” by Douglas Tallamy.
The UNC Charlotte Botanical Garden fall plant sale, this year Oct. 18-20, is a great place to pick up butterfly-attracting natives.
Wing Haven Gardens in Charlotte’s fall plant sale is members-only at first, then open to the public Oct. 10-12.
The Greensboro-based N.C. Native Plants Society has information on native plant choices.