Published in the Toronto Star October 15, 2016
“The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity.” ~Attributed to George Carlin
While the decline of the honey bee is high on our radar right now, butterflies are coming in a close second. And so they should. In case you have not heard, the Monarch butterfly population is in steep decline (though there are reports of a slight recovery this spring). Why, you might ask, should you care?
First of all, we need to reflect on what butterflies represent: natural beauty, freedom, a fragile strength that gets them to Mexico and back to Canada each year and of course, there is that transformation thing: metamorphosis. From a caterpillar into the most magnificent winged pollinator. For thousands of years butterflies have represented all of the above.
The good news is that you can make a measurable, positive difference to the population of butterflies and moths (another primary pollinator that deserves our attention) in your community by making smart choices where your garden is concerned.
Many plants attract butterflies very effectively. Here are some of my favourite butterfly plants. I recommend that you plant them now. Perennials will put down roots while the soil is still warm and burst out of the soil next spring ready to grow and bloom. Information relating to ‘nectar value’ is quoted from the book ‘Garden Butterflies of North America’ Timber Press.
- Buddleia/Butterfly bush. A butterfly magnet. Indeed, if you visit a garden centre early in the morning you will find the butterfly bush that are in bloom covered in butterflies in spite of the fact that a garden retailer can have hundreds or thousands of plant species available in the same space. The fragrance and pollen-rich nature of the flower of buddleia is powerful indeed. Hardy to zone 5, it often dies back to the base in the winter in my zone 5 garden. If I am patient, it throws new growth up in June and grows to beat the band in time for mid summer blossoms. Hummingbirds love it too.
- Black Eyed Susan (rudbeckia hirta). This reliable perennial provides the classic ‘daisy’ shaped flower that butterflies enjoy so much. Like a helicopter pad, this plant provides the perfect landing place for butterflies. The classic yellow flower is unmistakable as it seems to be taking over the planet. I love this aggressive self-propagator but I do cut out many roots each spring to keep it from spreading throughout my entire garden. It blooms for up to 10 weeks, prefers the sun and grows about a meter high. Hardy to zone 3
- Joe Pye Weed (asclepias or eupatoriadelphus) another plant that you will say, ‘Ah huh! I know that one!’ as soon as you see it. High in nectar value this perennial attracts milkweed tussock moths, monarch butterflies and many other colourful members of the family. Cultivated varieties grow aggressively up to 2 meters high while the native plants mature to about 1 and ½ meters. Another plant that I tame before it takes over my yard. Hardy to zone 3.
- Blazing Star (liatris) A great late summer performer featuring tall spikes of white or purple flowers in clumps that behave themselves (they don’t travel all over your garden). Look for the native plant or attractive cultivars. Grows to 1.2 meters and is nectar rich. Hardy to zone 4.
- Yarrow (eriophyllum). An easy to grow, aggressive bloomer that puts on quite a show for up to 8 weeks late each summer. Some will still be in bloom in Toronto area gardens. The native Yarrow grows to 0.8 of a meter but there are many brightly coloured cultivars available that are great garden performers. I like the pastel coloured ones but there are some more brightly coloured varieties available. Nectar rich, according to the book. Hardy to zone 2.
- Blanket flower (gaillardia) Not a reliable perennial, so plan on replanting every couple of years. But it makes up for its relatively short life by hosting a wide range of butterflies like the Bordered Patch and the Painted Shinia moth. Prefers a sunny position. Hardy to zone 4.
There are many other butterfly attracting plants available. I recommend that you look carefully at the label when buying. Some garden retailers use a butterfly icon on their signage to indicate that a plant attracts butterflies.
And finally, a word in defence of moths. As night flyers, moths get a bad rap. Perhaps they do not advertise well as they body-slam into the porch light. Truth is, they are not only harmless to humans they are very useful pollinators (yes, pollination often occurs while we sleep).
The difference between a butterfly and moth? A butterfly stands with its wings together or slightly parted, while a moth tucks its’ wings into its body when still. Both are necessary parts of a landscape that is rich with biodiversity. And we all need more of that.