High Tide

The CapeMay.com blog

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 www.camdenchildrensgarden.org/butterfly.html. 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 www.tripleoaks.com