My philosophy of gardening has gradually morphed over the years from selecting plants that primarily please me to instead selecting almost entirely those plants that benefit wildlife, specifically birds and pollinating insects (especially butterflies and bees). I initially try to find native plants that will supply nectar, pollen, fruit and leaves (for larval butterflies) for a wide variety of animals during a specific period of time extending from early Spring through Fall. However it immediately became obvious to me that natives alone would provide a poor selection and that judicious use of exotics would be necessary. At locations other than our new 48 acre preserve along the Haw River in NC (specifically Galax, VA, Boone, NC and Englewood, FL) I have found that a mix of about 50%:50% natives to exotics can be effective. The goal is to pick exotics that are minimally invasive or which can be controlled by dead-heading (removal of old flower heads developing into seed heads). I have also found that the definition of “native” is murky and that instead of a binary distinction there is a wide range of plants extending from locally grown natives to those originating within the same state or continent or more distant places. The situation is further complicated by artificial development of cultivars or hybrids of native species (such as Monarda or beebalm) and the widespread occurrence of feral populations of non-natives which have been so long established that many people do not realize their true origin. One of the best/worse examples among insects is the beloved honeybee which is a European (and African in FL) import which competes severely with native pollinators. I have no problem with it being used to pollinate crops, but honeybees should not be released into undeveloped/wild areas to compete with local pollinators for nectar just for the purpose of making a crop of honey. In fact one of the best things we can do for native pollinators is to remove honeybees from the wild.
My wife and I purchased a house and 18 acres along the Haw River in September of 2021. We subsequently bought two adjacent parcels of land making a total of about 48 acres. The house is 48 years old and has had a series of owners, some of whom planted shrubs and trees. Some of these (dogwoods, magnolias, redbuds, azaleas) have significant benefits for wildlife whereas others such as gardenias, oakleaf hydrangeas and camellias seem to have minimal values in this location. Of course there are thousands of native plants in the mostly wooded land (lots of spicebush) but there are also undesirable exotics such as Asiatic privet and tree of heaven. In a strange twist of fate the fruits of the privet are poisonous to people but relished by birds such as wintering hermit thrushes. Migrating Swainson’s and gray cheeked thrushes are very fond of native dogwood fruits when they pass through in October.
The backyard “grass” of this house is being managed for a “natural” flora by mowing high and infrequently. The resulting low growth is quite biodiverse and a mixture of natives and exotics. There are considerable numbers of wildlife friendly natives such as Venus’s looking glass (shown here), violets and birds eye speedwell and animals such as small snakes, box turtles and many insects eaten by birds such as the nesting bluebirds and chickadees. One common exotic is the mock strawberry which produces copious numbers of fruits.
The first problem I had in constructing a butterfly garden was the lack of sunlight which is required by almost all plants useful in attracting pollinators and birds. My solution was to cut down three large S sugar maples to allow the sun to cover an area of about 30 x 60 feet for 5-6 hours a day. Cutting these three beautiful trees might be considered detrimental to the local ecology, but in fact it has allowed me to plant a wide variety of shade-intolerant plants to attract wildlife. For example I planted two natives, coral honeysuckle (to attract hummingbirds and large butterflies) and arrowwood viburnum (to attract pollinators to the early flowers and birds to the blue fruits). I planted “semi-natives” such as hybrid Echinacea and black eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) for their nectar, and lantana and red hot pokers for their ability to draw in insect and avian nectivores (orchard orioles love the pokers as well as hummingbirds). Hybrid beebalms do indeed attract bumblebees in large numbers (see photo). Exotic altheas/rose of Sharon) are very attractive to hummingbirds and large butterflies; I found one new hybrid (purple satin seedless) which is sterile, a great advantage. But the MOST attractive and long lasting nectar plant is the exotic Buddleia or butterfly bush (the CranRazz cultivar is the best I have found). These can be invasive in some environments so I always “dead head” the seed heads after the flowers are finished blooming.
I have shown seven examples of butterflies which have recently (in May) visited my newly planted backyard garden. One part of the garden is densely planted with shrubs and perennial flowers and weeded; the other is less densely planted and not weeded but cut periodically with a mower or weed eater. The American lady can be hard to distinguish from the painted lady (look for the large spots on the outside hind wings). The tiger swallowtail is known to all but the spicebush swallowtail (a male in this case) is not so readily distinguished from the other “black and blue swallowtails” or the beautiful red spotted purple (not a swallowtail at all but a mimic in the brushfoot family which is part of the white admiral species group). Skippers can be common but very hard to distinguish except for the silver spotted skipper. The spectacular great spangled fritillary is dependent on violets for food for its caterpillar. The monarch is of course famous for its reliance on toxic milkweeds for larval food.
Of the many birds which are common here, it is interesting that some of the males are bright red in the breeding season or all year. Everyone recognizes the brilliantly red male cardinal which is flamboyant and conspicuous. In contrast there are two tanagers here, the summer which is much more common and the scarlet which is less common and has a more northern distribution. Strangely enough the male summer tanager remains red all year whereas the scarlet tanager molts into a yellowish plumage with dark wings in the fall/winter. Both of these tanagers are quite cryptic and hard to find in the trees despite the fact that they sing and call a lot. Why this difference in coloration is most efficient for each species is unclear. Does the male cardinal get eaten in larger proportion by hawks ? Is the increased amount of predation compensated for by the ability to attract more females and hold a territory?
Bright red coloration is also a major factor in ruby throated hummingbirds. The male has a patch of brilliantly red feathers on its throat which must be useful in attracting females and holding feeding territories.
May is one of my favorite months because of the intense activity you will observe among insects and birds. You will be much more effective at finding butterflies if you plant some of the flowers that are most attractive as sources of nectar. I also find that planting and maintenance of a butterfly garden is an amazing/rewarding experience at a number of different levels. But it does require hard work and a discriminating ability to pick out plants most suitable for your geographic location.