Miss Floribunda: What to grow for a garden full of butterflies

April 10, 2011

Dear Miss Floribunda,

My store is located in a heavy-traffic area, with the pollution and nerve-wracking noise that always goes with it. In back is a bit of ground that faces east, as well as a fairly long strip to one side that faces north. Last year, my wife bought an assortment of annual seeds at your sale, planted them in back, and despite the fact that neither the air nor the soil is good, they did pretty well. To our delight they attracted some very beautiful butterflies, which we found relaxing to watch from a window. We don’t know which of the flowers attracted these lovelies, but you might. You might also tell us what perennials to buy that would attract butterflies, and where to get them.

Butterfly-Loving Businessman on Baltimore Avenue

MISS FLORIBUNDA —  Dear Butterfly-Loving Businessman,

I took your concern to Brother Sommerfugl, a botanist and entomologist who created the Beneficials Garden at the Franciscan Monastery in northeast Washington, D.C. He is sure your annual flowers included cosmos, zinnias and marigolds. They are among the nectar plants he says attract adult butterflies as well as such other beneficial insects as lacewings, honeybees and ladybirds.  He wonders if you also grew sunflowers, which are among the host plants where beneficials – insects that are useful either as pollinators or as devourers of harmful insects – like to lay their eggs. You need both nectar and host plants in your garden.

If you want to acquire perennial plants favored by butterflies and their friends, then you are certainly in luck. On May 14 and 15, Hyattsville Elementary School PTA will host its second annual Native Plant Sale outside the school. On Saturday the sale runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from 8 a.m. to noon. Rain or shine!

Native plants not only attract butterflies and other nice insects but they are not fussy about soil and they purify the air. I’m afraid they can’t do much about the noise, but the birds they attract might at least offer a melodic counterbalance.  I’ve seen a partial list of the plants offered at the Native Plant Sale and see many that are hard to find. In addition to such butterfly-attracting standbys as purple coneflower and black-eyed Susans for nectar and redbuds and holly for hosts, you will also find less easily acquired New England asters, spice bush, ironweed, ox-eye daisy, wild bergamot (a.k.a bee balm or monarda), and that astonishing butterfly magnet, Asclepias tuberosa, or butterfly weed.

Both a host and a nectar plant, it is the most attractive of the milkweeds. Since it’s covered with flaming orange and/or yellow flowers, I like to call it by one of its more poetic common names: Indian paintbrush, or butterfly love. It is the most compact of the milkweeds, ranging from 1 to 3 feet high, and is very low maintenance. My Cousin Mariposa’s garden was taken over by the invasive common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which has rather dingy whitish flowers and grows a gawky 6 feet high, but she is happy because it attracts monarch and queen butterflies, among others.
Both Brother Sommerfugl and Cousin Mariposa strongly advise adding a water feature to your patch of land, because butterflies need water as well as sunshine and botanical temptation. Even a simple birdbath will do. They also strongly warn against using any chemical pesticides, which are fatal to butterflies. If you use native plants, you will not need pesticides anyway.

The Hyattsville Horticultural Society will meet at 10 a.m. on April 16 at the home of Heather Olsen, 4915 42nd Avenue. Please send any gardening questions to floribundav@gmail.com.

 

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