Six on Saturday: Counting on Butterflies

Our milkweed attracted lots of interesting bees and wasps, but where are the butterflies?

This was the first morning I noticed the sun rising a bit later, and the days growing shorter.  The long ascent of spring and early summer has reached and passed the pinnacle of Summer Solstice.  Families have celebrated Memorial Day and July 4th here in the United States, and now we have the long, slow slide of endless summer days until the end of August.  We’ll notice early signs of autumn before then- an odd leaf turned scarlet, acorns swelling on the branches of an oak.

I noticed a tree this morning covered in red fruits.  It was a native wild black cherry tree, Prunus serotina.  This is one of the very best trees to plant to support wildlife.  Hundreds of species of moths and butterflies use it as a host plant.  It blooms early, and offers sweet nectar to pollinators when there is little else in bloom.  And then, in summer, it is absolutely covered in tiny cherries. 

Prunus serotina, Wild Black Cherry, is covered with fruit

Those tart little cherries are edible, thought the seeds, bark and leaves of the plant are highly poisonous to humans.  Most of the cherries will go to a variety of birds and small mammals as they ripen, though.  It is good to see the fruits of summer swelling and ripening, offering up the sweetness of the season to those who look for them.

I worked at the botanical garden this morning for a happy hour or two, meeting a few other volunteers for a shared project.  By the time we finished, and I was ready to leave, the garden had filled with butterflies, as though by magic.  I often come and go so early in the morning that I miss the butterflies and have only the garden birds for company. 

But today there were butterflies everywhere, seeking out the nectar of so many thousands of flowers blooming in early July.  It seems we work and plan all year for these few weeks of summer when the garden fills with colorful flowers, the leaves are lush on the trees, the fruits ripen and butterflies flutter about on the breeze. 

This bed at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden offers Salvias, Cannas, Verbena bonariensis, and our native floss flower to pollinators. The hummingbirds visit this bed frequently.

Most of the flowers I plant these days are chosen to call in the butterflies.  My favorites are Verbenas, Salvias, Rudbeckias, Agastaches, Lantana,  Hibiscus, and Cannas.  They attract many species of butterflies and moths, but also offer something for hummingbirds, seeds for songbirds, and they are attractive over a long season.

Monarda and Phlox are often a mainstay in butterfly gardens, but both frequently develop mildew on their leaves.  Many people also plant butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii, but now I am hearing that it is considered invasive.  I’ve never found it invasive, but it needs frequent deadheading to look its best.  Without attention, it grows lank and ugly.

Eucomis prepares to bloom

I’ve planted Eucomis, pineapple lilies, this summer, and I’m watching the large varieties I planted at the botanical garden with great interest.  I planted them in the rock garden, where they blend in well with the many Yuccas and Sedums, and have room to grow.  They will grow into large clumps over the years, if they like their spots and survive winter.  They are just beginning to bloom, and I expect they will be very popular with our butterflies, there. 

The Liatris is blooming, and will continue for another few weeks.  We have a hummingbird that feeds near our front porch who visits it regularly.  Growing from a bulb, like the Eucomis, it is easy to order and easy to plant.  Like the Eucomis, it can be expected to form clumps and grow better each year.

Some naturalists will visit our Forest Garden tomorrow to count butterflies for a local NABA count.  I hope they will come in the afternoon, when butterflies are busy feeding, and that the count will be good. 

Anecdotally, my friends and I aren’t seeing as many butterflies as we expect to see by early July.  We all have reasons to offer for why this might be, and we are all concerned.  I tell new gardeners, “Plant it, and they will come.”  And I saw that with fingers crossed, hoping that our butterfly species survive in significant numbers, to come again in future years. 

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeding on Lantana

Too few people realize how their actions affect larger populations.  Spraying insecticides for the Japanese beetles kills butterfly larvae, and a host of other desirable insects, too.  Clear cutting trees for new neighborhoods and lanes on interstates destroys habitat and host plants those butterflies need to raise their next generation.  

Many of our native butterflies need oak trees, maples, pines, wild cherry trees, paw paws, and so many native shrubs as hosts for their larvae.  People generally think of milkweed, which supports Monarch butterflies.  But so many other plants support butterflies, too; the majority of them native, and not always available at a local nursery.

I am always happy to hear other gardeners mention that they have stopped using insecticides.  I’m happy when folks consider what host plants they might plant alongside their nectar plants, and when they transform sterile lawn into beautiful, nectar filled beds of flowers.  Every small effort we each make to mitigate climate change helps, too.  Our recent whacky weather does what it does to interfere with butterfly migrations and overwintering. 

We have just a few weeks left to enjoy the butterflies, the fruits of summer, and the peak of our gardens.  If we have planned and planted well, it is a time of celebration and appreciation for our year’s work.  And if we see gaps,  there is still time to plant something wonderful to enjoy this summer. If you’re heading to the garden center, please remember the butterflies. They are counting on each of us.

Martagon lilies

With appreciation to The Propagator who hosts Six on Saturday each week

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