For The Answer
Saturday, June 26, 2004
By Calvin Finch, Conservation Director, SAWS, and Horticulturist
PLANTS TO ATTRACT BUTTERFLIES
Butterflies add color and motion to a garden. They are very easy to attract with plants.
Plumbago is an outstanding butterfly plant. It has some shade tolerance and has a blue flower. Plumbago is not a disciplined grower so do not use it if you like straight edges or matching growth patterns between specimens. The sprawling plants are covered with the sky blue quarter-size blooms from May through the first freeze. The plants will grow 3 to 4 feet tall and at least as wide. They generally freeze back to the roots in the winter but in some sheltered locations will have a few blooms all winter. On warm winter days the butterflies will find those blooms. Plumbago is a good xeriscape plant with few disease or insect pests. The deer will eat plumbago in most neighborhoods.
Rock rose or pavonia has a growth pattern similar to plumbago. The flowers are pink and quarter size. It does not have any shade tolerance; in fact, the hotter, sunnier and drier, the better pavonia likes it.
Passion vine is a favorite butterfly plant. The flowers are large and showy, usually a shade of purple but also available in pink and whites. Passion vine will tolerate some shade but does best in full sun. It is another good xeriscape plant. If you plant passion vine, however, do not expect it to cover a fence or trellis well; the Gulf Fritillary butterflies lay their eggs on the foliage and spend all summer stripping the leaves. Enough green material survives to keep the tough plant blooming and growing but caterpillar activity is very noticeable.
Asclepias or butterfly weed is another blooming plant that is favored for its foliage. Monarch and Queen butterflies find the plant and lay their eggs. Butterfly weed is not a plant to be featured in the landscape. The yellow/orange blooms are attractive but they are at the ends of leggy, often sparsely-leaved stems. Find a sunny hot corner for your Asclepias. It does not appear to be a favorite of the deer.
Duranta forms a weeping shrub that can be 7-feet tall and just as wide. The small blue-lavender (or white) blooms cover the stems. At times they can be covered with feeding butterflies. Some winter duranta freezes back to the ground. Duranta is also called Brazilian Sky Flower.
My favorite butterfly plant is penta. This tropical plant offers red, pink, lavender, and white blooms all summer long. It can bloom in full sun or shade and is a great container plant. Place a few pentas on the patio along with firebush and lantanas and you will have butterflies and hummingbirds all summer. Pentas do not qualify as a xeriscape plant but they are worth a little extra water. Pentas attract hornworms so keep your eyes peeled for the voracious caterpillars. The hornworm moth is a spectacular night feeder but one caterpillar can put a penta out of action for 5 or 6 weeks. Perhaps the solution is to plant enough that you can let one or two get stripped bare by the hornworm.
Lantanas come in several versions. The spreading selection montevidensis (lavender or white) makes a good container plant. It also has some shade tolerance and cold tolerance. Two plants in whiskey barrels near my front door provide blooms for butterflies year-around if the winter is mild. “New Gold” is a very aggressive hybrid groundcover lantana that is frequented by butterflies. There are low growing mounding selections such as Popcorn (off white), Samantha (variegated leaf and lemon yellow flower), and many others. The native lantana (horrida) can grow to form a shrub 8-feet tall and nearly as wide. The flowers are pink and crème. There are many hybrid selections of Lantana camara that form shrubs. Radiance, Irene, and Dallas Red are three selections. Dallas Red has glow-in-the-dark red-orange blooms. All lantanas are good xeriscape plants that grow best in full sun. The deer will nibble at irrigated plants but usually leave them alone.