- Cape May NJ Travel Guide and Vacation Planner Blog

Month: October 2009

Ghosts of the Memucan Hughes House

400YearsGhostsCover copy

Ghost hunter and psychic Craig McManus has been panning for ghosts in Cape May for years now and has struck “pay dirt” resulting in four books, The Ghosts of Cape May Book 1, 2 and 3, and his most recent effort, 400 Years of the Ghosts of Cape May, which was released this summer and pays homage to Cape May’s year-long celebration of the “discovery” of Cape Island 400 years ago when the Dutch sail boat the Half Moon, captained by Henry Hudson, struck a sand barge and got stuck here one night – August 29, 1609 to be exact. McManus also tips his hat to the splendid photography which has chronicled Craig’s hauntings with his camera from the onset. and Kaleidoscope (a boutique located at 506 Washington Street Mall) are hosting a book signing Saturday, October 10, 2009 at Kaleidoscope from 7-9 p.m. Following the book signing, Craig will be talking about some of the hauntings on the Mall. According to Craig, Cape May’s Washington Street Mall actually has one of the largest concentrations of ghosts in town…it gives ‘Shop until you drop’ a whole new meaning.”

Below is an excerpt from 400 Years of the Ghosts of Cape May.

18th Century Haunts

Whalers Turned Farmers Turned Ghosts

Photo by Willy Kare

Craig upstairs in the Memucan Hughes House. Photo by Willy Kare.

As the sea continued to swallow up the high bluff and low beaches on the bayside of Cape May, including the small Town Bank settlement, the early pioneers, at least the ones who were not buried there, began to move inland.

By the early 1700s, all that was left of the old whaling colony was a collection of farms dotted with ruins of the original settlers’ homes. A few of the tombstones from the early graveyard were moved to Cold Spring. The rest, along with the bodies beneath them, slowly washed into the bay and are now, along with that early settlement, deep beneath the surf. You’ve heard the old expression, “Someone’s walking over your grave?” In Cape May we say, “Someone’s swimming over your grave.”

The Colonial House

The Memucan Hughes House, aka The Colonial House

Most of the Cape May peninsula and a large portion of southern New Jersey originally belonged, in the late 1600s, to Dr. Daniel Coxe, an esteemed English physician whose patients included Charles II and Queen Anne. Coxe held the title to many pieces of land including a huge tract in Cape May.

While he never actually came to America, Coxe did keep a large plantation on the bay side above Town Bank where he erected Coxe Hall, a meeting place for all of the residents of the settlement. After Coxe began to liquidate his American holdings in the 1690s, land titles began to pass to the first settlers. This is really where the true early history, and hauntings of Cape May begin. The people had arrived, their ghosts would soon follow.

Cape May County is rich in early history and (luckily for me) rich in early ghosts. While some ghosts seem to remain in their dwellings for centuries, most eventually do cross over. We are creatures of habit and we habitually get bored with things. Ghosts, human souls without the body, also get bored doing the same thing year after year. After a few centuries those souls probably make the leap to the Other Side out of shear boredom. How long could you stay in your room?

One of the highlights of ghost hunting is all the great living people that one comes to know. While writing this book, I had the pleasure of (finally) meeting historian and writer Joan Berkey. Joan’s book, Early Architecture of Cape May County, is packed with historical facts and pictures of Cape May’s earliest houses and settlements, some of them places that I have written about in my books. If you love early history and are a Cape May fan, this book is a must read.

The Memucan Hughes House


Writing on the window at the Colonial House

Probably the first really old house that caught my psychic attention in Cape May was the Memucan Hughes or “Colonial House” set back behind Alexander’s Restaurant and next to the Police Department on Washington Street. The exact age of this old dwelling/tavern was a matter of debate for many years. First it was thought to be 1760s, the most recent thinking as it was built around 1800, making the house not Colonial at all.

Historian Joan Berkey very recently found evidence to the contrary, however, that the structure may date back to 1730, making this house one of the oldest standing structures in Cape May City. The older the structure, the more chance of it being haunted. Layers of history converging on one spot have a way of bringing out the best in ghosts and the best ghosts.

The Colonial House is now a museum run by the Greater Cape May Historical Society. If you want to visit a real haunted house, but do not want to spent the night, this is the place to go. While the downstairs museum area is somewhat active, the real hot spot is the third floor attic area. Once you get past the old timber door with its many locks and ascend the winding stair case, you will find the paranormal heart of the Memucan Hughes House. Beyond that old door the undead linger.

Locks on the attic door

Locks on the attic door.

Who exactly is haunting here is a matter of question. Many tour-goers report seeing a figure in the third floor window, but cannot tell if it is a man or a woman. This house has also yielded a bounty of EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomena) for myself and other investigators. Both male and female voices have been captured on tape.

One of the ghosts I sensed in the house gave me the name “Sarah.” As far as I have been able to check, there has not been a Sarah associated with the house. However, ghosts are transient and, as this building was one of Cape May’s first taverns, there may have been a “Sarah” who worked there.

This house is thought to have originally been built by the Eldredge family of West Cape May, and was most likely moved here from a spot on Jackson Street where Cape Savings stands today. Since the hose has had so many owners and is one of the last remaining early period houses in town, it is quite possible that the ghosts are early as well. Whatever is lurking in the Colonial House is locked behind that old attic door. Someone at one point in history put multiple locks on that old door and I would suggest keeping those locks in good working order! You can read the entire story in The Ghosts of Cape May Book 2. [published in 2006]

Read more about Craig McManus’ investigations in 400 Years of the Ghosts of Cape May.

Visit Craig online at

A Cook and His Books

In the course of a hectic life, transitioning from summer jobs back to teaching and numerous side projects I have neglected some old friends. Some have been with me since the early days in Mom’s kitchen. My cookbooks. Long before the days of 24-hour food networks and well-written and informative Internet food columns, there were few places to learn about cuisines and foods from around the country and globe. Books of all sorts have always been important in my family. Dad always stressed that books were far better than the movie and reading has always been a family pastime. My Mom and her good friend Phyllis Kessler have always been excellent home cooks and have exchanged cookbooks from around the world as far back as I remember. This passion for food and culture has driven me to explore and experiment with different foods in my career.

recipesOne of my earliest experiences with cookbooks was a punishment. Before becoming a Persnickety Chef, I was a persnickety child, or as Dad always pronounced it, “Pain in the A–.” After complaining one too many times about what Mom had cooked that evening, Dad pointed to the cookbook shelf in the kitchen and told me if I didn’t like what was for dinner, to find something and cook it myself.

I took him at his word. I met Julia Child on that shelf and explored classic French cuisine years before I would study it at culinary school. I discovered and tried to recreate dishes like Coq Au Vin and Beef Bourgogne. Even then I always liked dishes with booze. A trip to New Orleans led to the Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s restaurants’ cookbooks joining Julia on “the shelf,” which led to experiments with Bananas Foster. No one got burned, but a few nice tablecloths were transformed into dishrags, Hollandaise sauce and gumbo.

The Feast of Santé Fe cookbook led to a lifelong passion for chilies and the distinctive flavors of the Southwest. The books showed me that it had to be better than school lunchroom Taco Tuesday and nachos with canned cheese.

Mom’s kitchen became a laboratory of cuisines –some not so successful – an electric wok and a Chinese cookbook led to a dish that could only be described as Egg Foo Wrong. Mom, Dad, my brother and my sister were mostly good sports during this phase.

cookbooksSome dishes that I learned from “the shelf” have never left my repertoire. Neither have the chefs I first met there. Julia Child will always have a place on the shelf as will Jacques Pepin, both of whom I later met in person.

Not all cookbooks made the honored spot on “the shelf,” some were relegated to cookbook purgatory – the bookshelf in the family room. “The shelf” was reserved for books that were often used. The Joy of Cooking was there, as was Robert Carrier, a favorite of Mom and her friends.  Betty Crocker and various women’s church group cookbooks found a home, some stayed for a while, some made room for newcomers like The Silver Palate cookbook and the Moosewood Cookbook (A revolutionary vegetarian cookbook from the 70s. Not sure how that got there.)

James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey were there as well. These denizens of “The Shelf” stimulated my early culinary appetite and some are still with me today, sorry mom. The dishes I learned there are still some of my favorites. I have since progressed from doggedly following the recipes and grasp the concepts much clearer than the 12-year-old boy who first tackled Coq Au Vin and Beef Bourgogne with mixed results.

Cookbooks are now an inspiration in creativity with fabulous photos and imagery stirring the technical side of my culinary mind.  But I still have and cherish old un-illustrated cookbooks such as my grandmother’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer and The New York Times Cookbook and I will never relinquish my copy of The Joy of Cooking.

This month try my versions of dishes inspired by my old friends from the shelf, Coq au Vin and Beef Bourguignon. Until next month, Bon Appétit.

Coq au Vin

wineglassThis dish requires some extensive preparation, but is worth the work. Pour a glass of red wine for enjoyment as you cook. Julia would!

(Serves 4)

  • Lardoons (8-ounce slab bacon julienned in 1 x ¼ inch strips) blanched for five minutes in water, rinsed, patted dry, then pan fried in sauce preparation
  • 3 pound old rooster or stewing hen (Alas, in modern times, we must settle for a fryer, cut into 8 pieces
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Salt and pepper
  • 16 pearl onions browned and braised in butter
  • 12 small mushroom caps sautéed in butter reserved
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 4 cups Zinfandel or Syrah (young good table wine)
  • 1½ cups chicken stock

After blanching and pan frying lardoons in same pan with pork fat, season chicken. Brown chicken four minutes per side. Good color will yield a better looking sauce. Add a little oil if necessary. Add garlic and brown lightly. Deglaze with wine, scraping pan with wooden spoon. Add stock, thyme and bay leaf. Cover. Cook in 300 degree oven for 35 minutes until tender. To make sauce (and this dish is all about the sauce), remove chicken to warm serving platter. Top with warmed lardoons, onions and mushrooms. Degrease braising liquid. Reduce by one-third. Mix 2 teaspoons softened butter with 2 teaspoons flour. Mix to form beurre manie (equal parts flour and butter kneaded together). Whisk beurre manie into sauce. Add chicken and garnish into sauce to baste. Serve with chopped parsley crusty bread and a couple of glasses of red wine.

Beef Bourguignon

(Serves 8)

  • 4 pounds beef chuck cut in 2” pieces
  • 4½ cups dry red wine
  • ⅓ cup Marc de bourgogne or ⅓ cup cognac
  • 2 white onions peeled and quartered
  • 4 carrots peeled and rough chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic peeled and sliced
  • 1 bunch parsley stems reserve leaves
  • 2½ teaspoons dry thyme
  • 2½ teaspoons rosemary
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • 3 aloves
  • 3 allspice berries
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 8 tablespoons butter (reserve 2 tablespoons softened for beurre manie)*
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1½ tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 pound peeled pearl onions
  • 1½ pounds small mushrooms
  • 12 ounces slab bacon cut into lardoons and blanched as in Coq Au Vin recipe
  • Salt, pepper
  • 2 tablespoons flour

In non-reactive container, marinate beef, carrots, onion, herbs, spices, wine and cognac. Refrigerate overnight. Next day, drain reserving liquid and vegetables into large Dutch oven. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter. Brown lardoons. Remove.  Add meat in small batches to brown evenly. Repeat until all meat is brown. Remove all but 2 tablespoons fat. Add vegetables and browned meat back to pot. Cook 5-8 minutes. Add tomato paste and marinade. Simmer 5 minutes. Cover. Cook in 275 degree oven for 3 hours. Remove meat. Strain sauce for vegetable garnish.

Place pearl onions in saucepan. Cover with water. Add 1 tablespoon butter and 1 teaspoon sugar. Simmer until tender. Increase heat. Reduce liquid to 2 tablespoons. Cook stirring until onions are glazed and brown.

In yet another skillet, add 3 tablespoons butter and lardoons. Add mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until golden brown.

Add mushrooms and onions to stew. Simmer. Whisk in beurre manie until thickened. simmer adjust seasoning serve with butter noodles

* Equal parts flour and butter, kneaded together.

Belle of the Ball

This story originally appeared in Cape May Magazine‘s Fall 2008 issue.

DSC_0950Our story begins at Tara, the O’Hara family plantation in Georgia, as Scarlett O’Hara chats absently with the Tarleton brothers. Wait, that’s a different story. This saga begins on a hot summer day at the Southern Mansion, the beautifully restored bed and breakfast in the heart of Cape May, with owner/operator Barbara Bray Wilde talking steadily about the possibility of war with the Yankees. No, no, no, that’s not it either.

The notion of southern hospitality has long held a special place in the American psyche. Visions of gentle belles in flowing gowns, smiling and dancing with chivalrous, handsome gentlemen under grand ceilings on a hot Southern night – it’s an overbaked melodramatic scene right out of the movies. And as art imitates life, so it is with Cape May – a city fond of its Southern visitors and well-known for its grand parties on hot summer nights.

So it should surprise no one (okay, maybe a few of you) that one of Cape May’s most notable landmarks is the Southern Mansion, a structure that, like Cape May, the South, and even America itself, has survived tough times only to come back stronger than ever.

Rest assured that eventually, there’ll be a line in here about not giving a damn.

Southern Mansion 6-08 (5)The Southern Mansion, built in 1863 for Philadelphia lawyer/businessman George Allen, is as grand and sweeping as any 1939 Academy Award-winning film. The grounds are two acres of manicured grass and overflowing gardens and the inside is typical Cape May – stately, proud and painstakingly restored after decades of neglect. Yet it fits so perfectly into the surrounding landscape, you could walk right by it and never notice. Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick would be inspired.

“When we arrived here in 1995 it was a dilapidated pit,” said Barbara, as I thank the stars that I brought a recorder instead of relying on hand-written notes – I would have never been able to keep up. “The ceilings were falling in, the roof was falling in, the floor was falling in, there was garbage piled to the ceiling in every room. The stink was so bad we were getting physically ill.”

Cape May was once very fashionable and genteel (like the Old South), until war came and things changed. Are you sensing a theme here? But will power and visionary thinking brought things back from the brink, and today there is prosperity where there was once despair. Eat your heart out, David Selznick.

“This house is very different than anything else in town,” said Barbara, a self-described “plant nut” and the owner of other businesses in town, including Willow Creek Winery in West Cape May. “It’s very masculine – there’s not a lot of tchotchkes. It always had strong colors on the interior and duller tones on the exterior – the idea was for it to blend harmoniously with the trees, the landscape. This house was built in the middle of the century. It’s very Southern, old-fashioned, and Italianate.”

Like Gone with the Wind, the story of the Southern Mansion is filled with universal themes of overcoming adversity through sheer determination (and a little alcohol maybe) and a transformation from the old order to the new reality.

DSC_0943“In ’94-95 I was down here with my boyfriend who later became my husband who then became my ex-husband. We snuck onto the property – there were these old nasty ‘for sale’ signs. We called and had an agreement of sale in three days. Mary Crilly owned it. It was important for her that if she ever got better, she wanted to be able to spend her last days here and we wrote that right into the contract. But she died, so that was a moot point.”

Original owner George Allen and his family were affluent Philadelphians and used the mansion as a country retreat for over 80 years, but when Barbara arrived on the scene, it was a rooming house that had been split into almost 30 different rooms.

“We couldn’t get a mortgage for it – it was a piece of crap,” she said. “But my ex – he looked at it and he knew – before we even began, what it was going to look like when we were done.” So, for the next several years, they worked. And worked.

“We moved in here with, I’d say, 10 guys. It was a different time – a time of good carpenters who worked for beers and a little…ahem. We worked 20 hours a day, like animals. There was only one working toilet [Barbara shudders].” Craftsmen, many of them locals who grew up as tradesmen, moved in and applied their talents to restoring the mansion to its former grandeur.

“The people who worked on this were artists – they were interested in detail and making something special. We did everything by hand. We set up our own millwork on the property. We did all the research. The guys actually jacked up the house and slid in sister joists. Those mirrors were destroyed – I did all the gold leaf on the mirrors myself. Luckily there were duplicates throughout the house. The furniture you’re sitting on is original – there’s millions of dollars in original furniture in this place.

“And this was before the days of Home Depot. It was exciting and fun, but it was crazy. We had a lot of great people who worked here. Maybe not the most upstanding citizens [laughing], but talented people.”

Part of the renovation process was removing decades of rotting garbage. It would have been easy to just throw everything in a dumpster. But they couldn’t throw anything out, because mixed in with the stinky diapers were important pieces of furniture, century-old photos and priceless lithographs. In the basement they found the ashes of a German seaman – Herzog Johnson – who at one time stayed or worked at the mansion. They threw the ashes out to sea

DSC_1139“We figured it was about time. He’d been there for 50 years.”

The design for the mansion came from noted American architect Samuel Sloan, who wrote a number of books in the mid-1800s, and filled the pages with original designs. One sketch, entitled “Design for a Southern Mansion,” must have caught Allen’s eye. (It’s also the inspiration for the mansion’s current name – the design hangs prominently in the main parlor). Allen contacted Sloan, who had been working on his now-famous Longwood House in Natchez, Mississippi, when the Civil War broke out. This “incident” would no doubt be referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression” by Scarlett O’Hara. Sloan fled Mississippi (as did most smart Yankees) leaving Longwood unfinished and came to Cape May to work for Allen.

“The mansion is very much tied into the Civil War,” said Barbara.

The mansion was made, according to Barbara, with one thing in mind – entertaining.

“In the 1860s, Cape May was a dynamite place to do business with both sides of the fence. Southerners vacationed here and Northern industrialists came down too. Allen actually got the contracts to produce the hats for both the Union and Confederate armies. This house was purely and simply built as a business/entertainment home. If you walk down Market Street in Philadelphia, you’ll still see George Allen’s name in stone above some of the doors.”

So that’s what the Allens did with his mansion – entertained.

“They had huge parties here and entertained plenty of celebrities – The Prince of Wales, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Gene Tunney the boxer, Will Rogers and other notable names. During Prohibition they would bring the alcohol off the beaches from Cape May Point. That’s what this house was for, parties and entertaining – fun, fun, fun. Someone told me the house was used as a Japanese embassy but I don’t know about that.

An old photo of the dining room

An old photo of the dining room

“[Long-time Cape May resident] Libby Bellangy told me that when she was a little girl they used to have magnificent parties here. [Barbara whispers] They used to get a little drunk. Libby told me a story about one of the guests falling through the hedge.”

Barbara found an old Western Union telegraph to Ulysses and Esther Mercur, George Allen’s niece and her husband, written by a party guest who apparently had a fabulous (and evidently half-naked) time while at the house. It reads:

Dear Uly,
My trousers were missing this morning,
My trousers are down by the sea,
So Esther and Uly my loved ones,
Please post back my panties to me


Oh yes, the Southern Mansion has quite the reputation for fun.

“I knew a lot of people who stayed here in the ’60s and ’70s – a lot of students, a lot of lifeguards. I’ve been told many stories. Mary and Dan Crilly had a son, also named Dan – he was this big strapping, six-foot-five guy. I’m telling you, I’ve never met so many women, they’re in their ’70s now, who told me, ‘yeah, I got lucky with Dan.’  They were coming out of the woodwork. This guy must have been the stud of Cape May.”

“The house likes parties,” added Barbara, “it runs better with more activity.”

Even the ghosts in the Southern Mansion like to party. Barbara tells stories of strange happenings too – mostly during parties. Reports claim the ghost of Esther Mercur still haunts the place.  You may notice her strong perfume in the hallways. It’s said that Esther is thrilled that the mansion has been returned to its former glory and enjoys attending parties at the mansion.

“George Allen’s brother-in-law was Charles Dougherty and he and his wife had two daughters, Esther and Mary. They took over the house later on. Esther was married here in the 1880s, and many of her wedding pictures still hang on the walls. The walls of the Solarium were enclosed for her wedding. We found boxes and boxes of Allen family photographs and diaries in the attic.”

The house remained in Allen’s family until 1946, when Cape May fell from fashion. Dan and Mary Crilly were the next owners who kept it and operated it as a rooming house until Barbara, and her degree in biochemistry from Cal Berkeley, came along.

A wedding party at the Southern Mansion

A wedding party at the Southern Mansion

“In 1946, this house sold fully-furnished, for $7,000. It cost more to build it in 1860. The Crillys were of more modest means. They thought they’d retire here, but they didn’t take into account the cost of maintenance and the house got progressively worse as the years went on.”

The mansion is filled with original walnut, oak, mahogany and chestnut pieces; remnants of the days when those woods were plentiful. Hanging on the walls are prints, paintings, newspaper clips, political cartoons and letters that run the gamut of the house’s history, mostly from the time the Allens and their descendants used the house.

“I found a lot of [the wall hangings] in rotting boxes and trunks in the attic and the basement. My ex put every single one together and put them up. People would come back from time to time after we first opened and offered to sell me stuff they had removed from the property. I bought a box of photographs from the 1870s that a guy had removed when he lived here. It was $10.”

Located all around the house are thick panes of glass that act as lights for the basement. Since there were no electric lights back in the day, there needed to be a way to illuminate the 5,000 square foot basement under the house. The windows are set in the porch and located so that the sun hits different windows at different parts of the day, diffusing the light and lighting the basement.

The 1860s ventilation system is state-of-the-art even for today – open all the windows and a breeze flows through the house from bottom to top. That ventilation system helped clear the air as Barbara was trying to rid the place of the moldy stink after she tore up the old carpets.

SM-sideviewPaintings by American artist Mark Bullen hang in some of the rooms, as well as the bill of sale from National Hall, a hotel that stood on the site where the post office currently sits.

“National Hall was a hotel George Allen owned as well and it burned down. I have all the ledger books from National Hall. This has always been a commercial block.” These days, Barbara is hoping to open a full restaurant.

“It’s hard to serve just for guests,” said Barbara, “It’s just not economically feasible. I have a full restaurant kitchen because I need it for the weddings. I serve phenomenal food here.”

But no restaurant yet?

“This is what drives me nuts about the city. There could be 30, 40 condos here. I wish the town would recognize what a great tourist draw this is, what an asset this place is. The more we bring in, the more taxes they get, but they don’t seem to understand that. I need a restaurant. We could very easily do it and it would have zero impact. We’re totally self-contained on this property and we’re very quiet.”

The Southern Mansion in its current incarnation opened fully for business in 1998 and today hosts plenty of parties – weddings mostly. It’s fitting for a structure that was built to be a party house.

“You should come when we have parties, you would love it. It’s a party in a grand old house, but you’re being served, it’s very Southern. We encourage the weddings to take the whole place so you’re not bothered.”

And while Southern Mansion is technically a bed and breakfast – you can get a bed there for the night and they serve you breakfast in the morning – it’s so much more. After all, it’s a mansion

“It’s a mansion. It’s not a little B&B, it’s not a hotel. It’s a mansion,” said Barbara.

Southern Mansion 6-08 (22)A few years ago, Barbara and her ex added an entire wing onto the house. Like the original, it blends right into everything else, like it belongs there. The mansion is truly a great place for a wedding; the grounds are huge and nothing short of spectacular. And of course, you’ll make Esther’s ghost happy.

Barbara related a funny anecdote that sort of captured  the Southern Mansion for me: some guests were complaining they wanted bigger TVs and more of today’s updated technology in the rooms. Her ex-husband’s candid and unblinking answer went something like this… “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. Have more wine, more ganja, and more sex.”

“It was more blunt coming from my ex,” said Barbara with a laugh.

Maybe, but it sounds like a plan to me.

A Little Bit About Butterflies

A swallowtail butterfly

A Swallowtail Butterfly

One of nicest experiences for gardeners is the observation of butterflies in the garden planned for them. Years of natural gardening in our yard reward us with a wonderful array of plants that attract butterflies until frost. A variety of natural food sources insure that colorful butterflies and moths live in our garden throughout out the season.

Southern New Jersey has a good number of interesting butterflies and moths, but the shore areas have even more. Cape May Point and areas along the Delaware Bay often have more unusual southern ones, so be sure to have a field guide if you are out walking in that area.

Blue mist shrub

Blue mist shrub, Caryopteris, blooms in September and October, a late source of nectar

From mid-July until frost it is fun to watch the butterflies from our window while dining, but best is when butterflies float about us if we have breakfast or sip a late afternoon glass of wine on the deck. We purposely plant butterfly plants near our doors, windows and garden fence. Many varieties partake of nectar from all of these butterfly delicacies.

When they are ready to lay their eggs, moths and butterflies are more specific in finding a host plant that their larvae will eat. If you plant plenty of parsley, dill, fennel and Queen Anne’s lace the Swallowtail Butterfly will dot them with eggs and from summer to fall the plants will be covered with small black caterpillars, the larvae of the Swallowtail Butterflies. When these small black larvae eat, they become large and striped and more and more green.

After shedding their skin several times, they will eventually become a pupa. This hardens and changes color, while inside the larvae begins changing to a butterfly. Sometimes you can see this happening through the cocoon. When the butterfly or moth emerges, it is wet and needs some time to dry. Soon it flies to nectar plants to feed, and later to host plants where it begins the cycle and lays eggs that hatch into larvae. They then eat their way to the pupa stage and it all begins again. By planting certain plants you can enjoy this life cycle right before your eyes.

Milkweed blooms

Milkweed blooms

Plants Butterflies and Moths Love

The Monarch Butterflies need milkweed. The Spicebush Butterfly needs sassafras or spicebush. Some Fritillary like violas, some need passionflower vines and Mourning Cloak lay eggs on pussy willow. Beautiful pale green Luna moths lay eggs on birch and hickories, which explains why I see them in the light next to our big old hickory tree. Many moths lay eggs in broad-leaf deciduous trees so, for this reason, spraying woodland areas is harmful to moth populations. There is nothing so exquisite as the grandeur of a moth like the Polyphemus or Cecropia moths. If you would like to see pictures of these beauties, look in a field guide or on the Internet. Or better yet, plant some trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals that will attract them to your garden. We usually pull out wild cherry trees, but now we do have a few large ones since many beautiful moths deposit eggs on the leaves.

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterfly

As a child, I had a 4-H butterfly and moth project. I would watch the base of streetlights and wait to find one of the short-lived moths that flew to the light in its last night of egg laying and then die. They would promptly be added to the butterfly/moth collection board. I would also catch butterflies, hopefully after they had laid their eggs.

A fragrant shrub called glossy abelia, lilac, wigelia, vitex and many others bloom and provide nectar. There are many long lists of plants that butterflies love, but of course the bright orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and butterfly bush (Buddleia) are the most popular. To see a good variety of butterflies it is worth having a little “patch of meadow” with wild milkweed (Asclepias) Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), bright purple iron weed (Vernonia), Russian sage, hardy Salvia, black-eyed Susans, and long blooming Scabiosa (pincushion flower). Now is a really good time to plant shrubs and perennials for spring bloom. These, plus the following, will also give your yard the cottage garden look.


Sassafras is a host plant for large beautiful moths

Sow hollyhocks, chamomile, mint, anise hyssop, phlox, yarrow, lavender, perennial sunflowers (Helianthus), perennial asters, penstemon, mints, and catmint, Plant the following annuals next spring – tithonia, zinnia, dill, pentas, dianthus, lantana and cosmos. These plants as well as many more will all spread, wave beautifully in the breezes, come up profusely each year and attract a large variety of butterflies. A tapestry of color, this planting looks nice along a fence, or as a border in a sunny spot.

For a more contained look that can be used in a formal herb garden or small foundation planting use lavender, dianthus, heliotrope, purple cornflower, zinnia, basil, pansies, blue mist shrub (Caryopteris) and fragrant blue blooming Vitex.

Spring violets are host plants.

Spring violets are host plants.

On ongoing plan to plant your garden with butterflies and moths in mind is a great project. Don’t spray plants because the least little insect, that caterpillar you are spraying for instance, might just be a butterfly in disguise.

Public Butterfly Garden

The Children’s Garden in Camden New Jersey boasts of both an outdoor butterfly garden and a year round butterfly house. When I spoke to Mike Devlin, director of the Children’s Garden Center, one day he remarked that two Monarchs were just outside his window, but that there were many more in the butterfly house.

“It is an attraction that has allowed us to teach more about the environment,” he said.

Visit Plant now for butterflies in your garden next season.

Triple Oaks Nursery and Herb Garden hosts natural gardening classes, floral design classes and much more. See calendar at