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Nature’s beauties

Butterfly on buddleia bush.
Butterfly on buddleia bush.

Homeowners can bring butterflies back to Alabama gardens

Story and Photos by Carolyn Tomlin

Driving down an off-the-beaten path in north Alabama, a driver swerved and stopped immediately in front of me. After hitting my brakes, I realized it was my fault. I should have read her bumper sticker, which stated: I BRAKE FOR BUTTERFLIES.

Ranging in colors from yellow, black, blue, and shades in between, you see them on country roads, in suburban gardens and sunny nature centers. Often, I see them near the small towns of Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals. Driving on the back roads, butterflies (Lepidoptera) flutter above Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susan and purple coneflowers that grow along the roadside. Regardless of how often they appear, one never tires of their beauty. These marvels of nature fly by day and rest with their wings erect.

Alabama has a diverse geographical terrain. From the hills of north Alabama to the sunny Gulf Coast area, this varied landscape supports many plants native to the Heart of Dixie.

Grow both hosts and nectar plants

The ideal way to attract butterflies, says Carol Lovell-Saas, director of the Biophilia Nature Center in Elberta, “is to provide both host and nectar plants. For example, monarchs need milkweeds (any plant in the genus Asclepias), but every butterfly species has a plant or group of plants that it specifically needs for its caterpillars to eat. Zebra swallowtails only lay their eggs on paw paw trees. Gulf fritillaries prefer passion vine. Long-tailed skippers choose native wisteria and other bean family relatives.”

Amanda Maples, director of the Purdy Butterfly Conservatory in Huntsville, says the monarchs need our help for more host plants. Its primary host plant, the common milkweed, doesn’t die back in the deep South and can develop a disease that harms the butterfly. Gardeners should cut back their milkweed each year to minimize the risk of disease.

Nectar plants that grow well in the state include those above and native honeysuckle, milkweed, dwarf zinnia, lantana, Mexican sunflower, blazing star, Joe-Pye weed and phlox.

Often wildlife enthusiasts ask: How do I find out the best host and nectar plants that attract butterflies? Lovell-Saas suggest you start with your local Extension System, websites for your local universities or colleges, and search for local clubs or interest groups who focus on botany, wildflowers, butterfly gardening, or other nature-related clubs. Check Lovell-Saas’ website at www.biophilia.net and www.floraofalabama.org for more tips on butterfly gardening.

Environmental factors

Artists design butterfly sculptures for the Butterfly House in Huntsville.
Artists design butterfly sculptures for the Butterfly House in Huntsville.

Aside from providing host and nectar producing plants, there are additional concerns Alabama gardeners can control. Maples suggests filling birdbaths with moist sand. “If a butterfly tries to drink water from a birdbath and accidently falls in, they drown. Place saucers of moist sand or clean water daily around your plants. Smooth rocks or stone also provide a warm resting place.”

Any ideas for over-ripe fruit? Instead of discarding, slice bananas or apples and offer these tidbits for munching. Butterflies not only receive moisture, but the fruit provides energy.

“A common problem affecting butterflies and non-harmful pests are chemicals and pesticides used to control weeds and insects,” Maples says. “In my garden, I use full-strength white vinegar to manage grass and weeds near nectar producing flowers. This will not eradicate tough foliage, but will help control without the use of dangerous ingredients.

“And if my neighbors are using chemicals, I suggest they try vinegar first.”

Alabamians value the butterfly—especially with the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the official state butterfly, and the Monarch, the state insect. It’s up to Alabama’s citizens to provide both host and nectar plants and to ensure our state preserves and protects this elusive creature.