Habitat Gardening to Attract Butterflies and Other Pollinators

By Debbie Brown

Spring is a natural time to add flowering plants to our landscapes. Incorporating ones that attract pollinators will benefit us and ultimately our world. With a little knowledge, planning and work our outdoor spaces can become beautiful sanctuaries for hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, bees, and more.

Pollinators have the important role of fertilizing female plants which produce seeds, nuts or other fruit. Because 85% of flowering plants require a pollinator to move pollen, plants would not survive reproductively without them. These wonder creatures are imperative to our ecosystem.

There are a few basic principles to keep in mind while planning a habitat garden. Since pollinators prefer native plants, include as many as possible. Choose a variety of plants with different bloom times for a long season of feasting. Plant clumps of the same color of flowers together so they are easily seen as our winged friends pass by. Incorporate varying canopy layers for shelter and provide a shallow water source. Finally, refrain from using pesticides.

Butterflies thrive on the nectar of many flowering perennials and annuals. Because of their metamorphic life cycle, a host plant is also required for the larvae stage. For example, the eggs of monarchs are laid solely on milkweed leaves. So without milkweed available there won’t be monarchs. A tremendous number of butterfly species rely heavily on tree species as host plants. Black cherry trees support swallowtails, painted ladies and luna moths, and black locust trees support sulphurs and skippers. Elm is the host plant for mourning cloak butterflies and willow is the host for tiger swallowtail.

A good place to start in developing a landscape where butterflies want to call home is with the addition of native plants. Some of the most valuable ornamental native perennial plants for supporting butterflies and moths are: goldenrods, asters, sunflowers, pyeweeds, morning glories, sedges, honeysuckles, lupines, violets, geraniums and coneflowers. Supporting woody native plants are: oaks, cherries, willows, birches, poplars, crabapples, blueberries, maples, elms and pines. (Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home, 2009).

Other powerhouse plants that support various pollinators are tickseed, mountain mint, mistflower, blazing star, beardtongue, phlox and bergamot. There is an inexhaustible list of herbs and flowers that can be added to these lists. Pollinators will flutter to the locations where the buffet is large and varied.

The ruby-throated hummingbird is always a delight to see in the garden. We can attract these pollinating jewels by adding a few of their favorite plants to our landscapes: wild columbine, oxeye sunflower, coral bells, jewelweed, Virginia blue bells, wild bergamot, beebalm, sundrops, yellow poplar, trumpet vine, coral honeysuckle and Carolina jasmine. The tiny hummingbird has a supercharged metabolism and must eat once every 10-15 minutes and visit 1,000 – 2,000 flowers daily.

Hummingbird feeders are helpful to provide nectar critical to their survival, especially during spring and fall migration.

There’s much to learn and do in the journey of making our landscapes “pollinator friendly. But the rewards will be worth the time and effort. We will be helping nature to function effectively and reaping the benefits of the tiny workers in our gardens while enjoying the visual beauty of a vast array of diverse plants and wildlife… in our own backyards.

See Virginia Tech’s publication 426-070 on Backyard Wildlife Habitats for further information. Listen to WHEO 92.7 at 8:30 a.m. on April 24 to hear Patrick County Master Gardeners discuss pollinator gardens and more.

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