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Butterfly gardens create beauty, attract beauty

Posted Tuesday, July 5, 2005 - 10:16 am

By Durant Ashmore

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Last week I expressed a hope that you have experienced the joys of watching butterflies in your garden. The creation of gardens primarily for the enjoyment of butterflies has become a subset of landscape gardening for plant lovers throughout the world.

The column this week will explain what is involved in butterfly gardens. Feel free to incorporate as many principles as you wish in your garden design. You will be delighted with a colorful set of visitors that will increase your gardening pleasure.

Butterfly gardens are relatively easy and enjoyable to create, but there are several considerations to keep in mind. Full sun is one requirement. Butterflies like to bask. There should also be shelter from the wind to keep the butterflies from being blown away. A water source is necessary, as well, for the butterflies to drink from, although wet sand is sufficient.

The butterfly garden should take into account the different stages of development of the butterfly. The adults lay eggs which hatch into larva (caterpillars). The larva spin a pupa (called chrysalis) and then metamorphose into adult butterflies. Each of these stages involve plants used in the butterfly garden.

The three types of plants to use in the garden are host plants for the eggs, plants for the larval food and nectar producing plants for the adults. As you can see, butterfly gardens provide quite an educational opportunity for nature study and many schools use them for this purpose.

Host plants for the eggs are fennel (best), dill, parsley, pansies and the passion flower vine. Some plants serve as both host plants and nectar plants. Milkweed (aesclepius syriaca) is a very useful plant for this purpose. There are at least three plants with the common name milkweed. What we are talking about here is a native plant which grows about 2-feet tall, has large leaves and a big white flower head. Pansy and hollyhock are also both host plants and nectar producers and are very useful and beautiful additions to any butterfly garden.

Plants on which the larva feed are fennel, nettle, snapdragon, violets, lantana, and goldenrod, among others.

Plants which are necessary for nectar are black eye susan, purple coneflower, daylilly, coreopsis, marigold, daisy, hibiscus and goldenrod. In fact, any plant that produces flowers can provide nectar for butterflies.

A native wildflower can now be found blooming orange on the sides of roads. This is butterfly weed (aesclepius tuberosa), and is a great addition to a butterfly garden. As you can see, quite an attractive garden can be created when you are planning to attract butterflies.

The best shrub to use to attract butterflies is buddleia (common name butterfly bush). Buddleia can grow quite large, so be sure that you have enough space for it. Buddleia requires full sun. It grows large cone shaped panicles of flowers which come in white, yellow, pink, red, blue or purple. If you are not creating a butterfly garden per se, you can still have an abundance of butterflies by using buddleia. Any back yard that is big enough and has sun should have at least one buddleia in it.

I particularly like to have buddleia spaced at either end of the back yard with a few in between so that a series of butterfly stops are created for the butterflies to enjoy. There will be as many as 25 butterflies at each plant with a convoy of butterflies flying about 6 feet off the ground flitting from one plant to another.

Buddleia has many characteristics uncommon to other plants. It is deciduous, but only has a very short time when it is not in leaf. In October the leaves turn yellow and fall off. During this period buddleia is not particularly attractive. In November the plant will produce pale bluish green juvenile leaves. I find this stage of development to be very interesting and attractive. Throughout the spring the leaves grow to about 2- to 3-inches long and the flowers start to appear in June. Buddleia is a profuse bloomer, but you can increase the flowers even more by deadheading the old blooms. Buddleia has a very shallow root system and is prone to being blown over. Staking helps with this. Also, buddleia has a relatively short life span and may not live more than five to seven years. (I believe this is due to the root system.) If your plant gets too large, do not hesitate to radically prune it to one half to one third.

The preeminent butterfly garden to view in our area is at the Roper Mountain Science Center. The public can get an excellent understanding of the layout of a butterfly garden and the different plants available to use. You can also see the wonderful activity of the butterflies in all their glory. Oakview Elementary School has a superb butterfly garden, as well as Fork Shoals Elementary School. Please call these schools first for permission to view their gardens. Hughes Academy off of Augusta Street in Greenville has a butterfly garden that you can drive up to. Because butterfly gardens show a variety of different scientific principles they make excellent outdoor classrooms.

Editor's note: Columnist Durant Ashmore, MLA, of Fountain Inn, is certified by the South Carolina Nursery Association. He can be reached at 243-3446 or at

Wednesday, June 23  

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