Wild About Texas – October, 2007

Bored with ‘New Gold’ lantana? Tired of replanting zinnias and pentas every year? Well, maybe not, but if you are looking for some hot native options to attract nectar-seeking butterflies, read on.

In general, butterflies prefer flowers that bloom in close clusters so they do not unnecessarily expend energy while flying from one flower to another. Even better are clusters that are flat-topped, such as lantana or verbena, so butterflies have a flat place to rest while nectaring. Plant families such as Verbenaceae (verbenas and lantanas), Asclepiadaceae (milkweeds), Lamiaceae (salvias, skullcaps and horsemints) and Asteraceae (sunflowers, daisies, thistles, asters and mistflowers), are ideal for enticing these winged jewels.

But do plants in the sunflower family really bloom in close clusters? On quick observation it wouldn’t appear so, but if you look very closely you’ll see that each “flowerhead” is composed of many, perhaps hundreds, of tiny individual flowers – some may not even have petals. Each individual flower will produce nectar to feed the hungry insects, making these plants one-stop shopping marts.

To optimize the nectar available to butterflies, water your plants enough to prevent them from becoming overly drought-stressed. When watering your garden, drip irrigation or soaker hoses are ideal. Not only do these systems administer water directly and efficiently to the roots of plants without loss to the air by evaporation, they also will not wash nectar from flowers as overhead sprinklers do.

The following list of native perennials includes some of the best nectar sources for attracting a variety of butterflies.

Asters: Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, S. praealtum, others
Barbara’s buttons: Marshallia caespitosa
Gayfeather: Liatris mucronata, L. pycnostachya, others
Milkweeds: Asclepias tuberosa, A. incarnata, A. asperula, others
Mistflowers: Ageratina, Eupatorium, or Conoclinium species
Purple coneflower: Echinacea purpurea
Salvias: Salvia greggii, S. coccinea, S. penstemonoides, others
Spiderwort: Tradescantia gigantea, others
Texas lantana: Lantana urticoides (aka L. horrida)
Turk’s cap: Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii

Check back next month to learn about providing food for butterfly caterpillars to complete the cycle.

For more information about Texas native plants and wildflowers, visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Web site at www.wildflower.org.

About the author: Andrea DeLong-Amaya is the Director of Horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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