JANE HURWITZ says that her mission is simply this: to get more of us to garden with butterflies in mind. I suspect that sounds like something you wouldn’t mind being nudged to do, or do more effectively. Jane Hurwitz is editor of “Butterfly Gardener” magazine, and former director of the Butterfly Garden and Habitat Program for the North American Butterfly Association.
Her 2018 book from Princeton University is called “Butterfly Gardening, the North American Butterfly Association Guide,” and offers practical advice—both the overall principles and also plant-specific palettes, region by region. We talked about the role of native and non-native plants; about what the Number 1 plant gardeners around the country credited as being an effective attractant; about taking into account the borrowed landscape around you, and what an adult butterfly looks for in a flower, anyway.
Read along as you listen to the July 9, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
butterfly-gardening q&a with jane hurwitz
Q. Now, you garden in New Jersey, just for perspective so, people know but, this is a book for everywhere. But, you’re in Jersey, yes?
A. It is a book for everywhere—butterflies are everywhere. And, in working with North American Butterfly Association, my focus has been—for the 15 years that I’ve been with them—is promoting butterfly habitat for everybody.
Q. O.K., and I think, if I remember my numbers correctly, there are maybe 750 species of butterflies, or thereabouts in North America. And obviously, you couldn’t cram them all into the book, who made the cut? What was your approach in figuring out how to filter, and what butterfly species would be addressed?
A. Well, it was very hard in the beginning to figure that out. But, what I came up with was wide spread butterflies. Ones that have a range that would cover most of the United States and also represent the six different families of butterflies, so that people could really learn about butterflies as a group of insects.
Q. Is this a competitive thing, butterfly gardening and butterfly watching—is this something like us crazy birders like myself, who count and we want to know how many and we tell each other how many we’ve seen in our gardens? Is this what happens? [Laughter.]
A. Some people are like that, I wouldn’t call them crazy.
Q. [Laughter.] I’m teasing. I’m calling myself crazy.
A. [Laughter.] I know, I know. There are some, and that’s great but, that’s not really the majority. I think really the majority of people who garden for butterflies, they may want to list, which is what you’re calling listing the different species. But there’s just a huge range of different interests.
Some people want to grow caterpillars, they enjoy helping the caterpillars and the process of metamorphosis, which is fascinating. I think everybody should grow a caterpillar once, at least. [Above, black swallowtail caterpillar at Margaret’s.]
There are people that just want to make sure that whatever they’re doing outside, that it’s kind of “do no harm.” They don’t detract from butterfly habitats, a very simple idea. And there’s everything between. I come from a plant nerdiness. I just like plants.
Q. Yes, me too.
A. And once you really like plants, you start to see all the different creatures out there that interact with them.
Q. Speaking of that, as I said in the introduction, you cover many different regions including with really helpful charts. That was one of the things that really attracted me to the book right away: the recommended plants for each, so no matter where someone’s located.
Before we get to the specific regional charts in the book, there are some general guidelines, I assume, for making a butterfly garden. I was interested to see, for instance, that you did not take a hard line on native-only palette. You included some non-natives and things like that. So, what are some of the principles that were about making a butterfly garden wherever we are?
A. Well, I like to keep it very simple because that way you can include more people. And, my definition of butterfly gardening is very simple. That, it’s a garden that provides resources that support the entire butterfly’s life cycle. [More on butterfly-garden basics from NABA.]
Q. O.K., the entire, O.K..
A. So, you have egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly. And depending on the species of butterfly, say for example, a monarch, that would come to your garden, lay eggs in the late spring, early summer depending on where you are. You could watch the eggs hatch into a caterpillar, you can watch the chrysalis—they’re beautiful, they have little flecks of gold on them. And then about in 12 days, 14 days, you see a monarch emerge. So you could see the entire life cycle and, it’s fascinating.
Other butterfly species are not quite so easy to watch. I have a lot of great spangled fritillaries in my garden.
Q. So do I. [Above, a great spangled fritillary in Margaret’s garden, on Verbena bonariensis.]
A. They overwinter as a teeny-tiny little caterpillars near violet plant roots. I’ve never seen the caterpillar. So, you would want to not disturb where you have violets growing. So, there’s all sorts of little tricks that you learn as you learn to identify what butterflies are already coming to your garden. It’s really very simple; it’s a bit like putting a puzzle together.
Q. So we need to know what they eat, and what they eat in some cases at different life phases, as well because it’s not always the same. What do butterflies eat—that’s the adult form—what do they eat versus…
A. Most butterflies are nectar-feeders, and nectar is a sugary substance produced by glands in flowers, sometimes actually outside of the flower. But, butterflies mostly come to nectar in flowers.
There are actually butterflies that prefer other food sources, like animal scat or fermenting fruit.
Q. Yes. [Laughter.]
A. That’s a fact but most of your garden butterflies come to nectar. And, you can do that—a lot of choosing your plants for a butterfly garden, you choose caterpillar food for the caterpillar phase, and you choose nectar plants. Not all plants, not all flowers, produce nectar that butterflies really like or, can access. So, it’s best when starting to choose from a list of known attractive nectar plants, and you’ll be off to a great start that way. And you can experiment after that.
Q. O.K., so we’re going to start with the nectar plants. So, then that’s flowers—yes you’re right, there are extrafloral nectaries, but they’re not so interested usually in those.
So, are some of their flower preferences—it seems like they probably aren’t exactly what we as gardeners are looking for necessarily. We might say, “Oh, I really want the most scented one,” but I don’t know, butterflies might have no interest in scent. Do they like certain colors, shapes—are they morphologically based, is it the shape of the flower that they’re looking for?
A. A lot of it is the shape of the flower because butterflies have a long tongue that works basically by suction. A very basic way to think of it is a long straw. And a bigger butterfly will have, proportionately, a longer tongue. [Above, monarch on a Tithonia.] So you want different size flowers, so that you can have small butterflies that can access the nectar in a smaller tubular flower.
But, the quality of nectar varies. So, certain flowers have a more viscous, or liquidy nectar, which butterflies can suck up easily. That’s why I say it’s best to start with a list. There’s tons of lists, I have lists in my book, of what plants butterflies really like. And I’ll tell you the one in all of my interviews, everybody across the country uses is Eastern purple coneflower.
Q. [Laughter.] Yes, that’s funny.
A. It blooms for a long time, which is important when you’re butterfly gardening—you want a long season of nectar. And it’s easy to grow, it’s fairly deer-resistant. It’s adaptable to a lot of different types of gardens. It prefers full sun, but it’ll take a little shade. So, hands-down, that is the Number 1 native nectar plant that people tend to use.
Well, the second thing that butterfly gardeners choose for nectar plants are zinnias. And that’s an annual. You have to plant it every year. It’s not native but butterflies love them. So, you can use that one starting out because they’ll bloom the first year, which is a great thing. You can use them to fill in the gaps if you have a lot of perennials, but perennials might only bloom for three, four or five weeks, whatever you’re growing. So this idea of a long season of nectar can be accomplished by putting in a few annuals.
Q. Would those be single-flowered, like fewer petals? What would be a good choice of a zinnia for butterflies, or all of them are just as good?
A. Well, it’s best always for butterflies to choose the single-flowered varieties. And that’s a very good question because the Eastern purple coneflower, of course, is heavily bred when you go to a nursery or garden center.
Q. Indeed. Indeed.
A. You see all those crazy double ones [above, ‘Secret Affair’ double Echinacea], and all sorts of different things. And quite often when plants are bred to be double, which is with the extra petals, which people really love, they’re beautiful plants, but the tissue that they use to make the extra petals has to come from somewhere, and quite often that comes from the reproductive organs of the flower, which includes the nectar-producing glands.
So, you can’t make a blanket statement and say, “oh, every double flower is not producing nectar,” but many of them are not. I like to say, if you love the look of that flower, and you want it in your garden, take it home and try it. But, it may not feed nectar for butterflies.
Q. Right, and in places where they’re doing research on things like this in real conditions, of different cultivars–because that’s what you’re talking about as opposed to the straight species of, say, purple coneflower. Places like Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware, which is in your book—and every trial they do. And now that they’re doing collaborations with University of Delaware on attractiveness to pollinators and other beneficial insects, time after time what you just said is what they’re finding.
So, yes you can take it home and you can try it, but likely the thing that’s the closest looking and structured like the straight species is going to be the big winner among insect-attracting. That’s what they’re finding, generally—and I’m being very loose about my description. [Laughter.]
A. Well, I think that that’s correct though. And, to add to that, I think that’s why we need more butterfly gardeners. Because, when I give talks or when I’m meeting with people, people will say, “oh, I’ve tried this, I’ve tried that,” and you really get feedback. Because until you take it home and try it, you don’t really know. There are selections of native plants, and I think Mount Cuba’s trials, their phlox trials actually turned up one—it’s Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana.’ [Above, photo from Mt. Cuba Center.]
It’s a selection but it isn’t actually bred. And, butterfly gardeners have been using this for years and years and years. It’s sterile; it won’t set seed and give you a nice population, but butterflies love this plant.
Q. And it’s a surprisingly small flowers, actually.
A. They do, and what’s interesting is, in the ones I’ve seen in New Jersey, it tends to bloom later than the straight species, which from a gardening standpoint, that’s interesting. You get more bloom in your area. I have some of it growing in a bed full of the straight species. So, the straight species starts to die down; there’s still a few blooms then the ‘Jeana’ comes in nicely after that.
Q. Right, so you started out by using purple coneflower as an example, because in the book, you have not just researched by reading other books, or whatever. But, you’ve actually interviewed many butterfly gardeners around the country in these different regions to get their insights and compare their insights.
Were there top… you mentioned coneflowers, and that’s I don’t know whether you want to say a composite or a sunflower family, or daisy or whichever version—but is that a top group of plants as well? Are there either genera or families, especially families, that are the most highly recommend like there are for bees, where the sunflower family and the mint family are two really highly recommended—the composites and the mints.
A. Those are the same two families that butterflies tend to love. But now bees have a different mouth part. They tend to have more of a lapping mouth part, and they can access nectar that’s much thicker. So, also there are a lot of garden plants that don’t produce nectar but produce a lot of pollen. So, I find that very interesting; maybe some people would find that too much information, right? That you might have a great plant and there’s bees all over it, and you would assume that’s great for butterflies, but, in fact, it’s not.
Q. Right, because it’s about the pollen, right.
A. Yes, so you need to watch what’s going on in your own garden, which is the fun part: to go out and see what’s really popular.
Q. Any scent or color or anything, does any of that come into play or no?
A. You know, you read a lot that certain colors are very attractive for butterflies and others aren’t. But the trouble is, there’s always exceptions. In the book, it’s funny you ask that, because I actually avoided that point in the book.
Q. Yes, I feel like I don’t know if anyone knows—that’s what my inference is.
A. What I find interesting about it, is that butterflies see in the ultraviolet range. And there’s actually nectar guides—and I have a little bit about this in the book—and some of these are visible to the human eye. So, if you start looking in plants, they’ll be dark lines or dots, and that’s actually leading the insect into where the nectar is. And I find that a lot more interesting than fussing about the colors that we see. Because butterflies don’t have vision like us.
Q. So it leads them to the literal sweet spot doesn’t it?
A. Right, so I’m not trying to avoid your question, but I had made a concerted effort to not go there, because that’s a scientific point and it’s debatable. And people like to say, “oh orange flowers, they love orange flowers.” Well, they love pink flowers, too. The interesting thing is, one thing you hear is they don’t like white flowers. But, there are some plants like the mountain mints, which are Pycnanthemum. Those are white flowers, but if you get down and look at them, they have a ton of little purple spots, and lines and dots. So, I think the takeaway is, butterflies see differently than us. So, I avoided taking sides on that issue.
Q. I mean, as I said before, I’m into birds, and one of the great current ornithologists, Pete Dunne, says, “Birds are almost always where they’re supposed to be.” So, shore birds aren’t in the desert, right? [Laughter.]
Q. And those plant charts in your book, which show which butterflies or caterpillars interact with which plants, there was sort of this “aha” thing, on the one that’s about Eastern deciduous forest, because I’m in the Northeast, that’s my area.
And there was sort of this “aha,” or maybe I should say it was sort of a, “Duh, why didn’t I get this?” moment.
In the chart for my area I saw the silver-spotted skipper, and some people would debate whether skippers are butterflies, but that’s another matter. It was in one column and if I slid across that column to see what plant it favored, it said black locust trees, Robinia–which of course, my woods here are full of. I’m in a giant 7,000-acre state park and I’m full of locust trees. [Laughter.]
And, so all these years, I’ve been saying, “Gosh, I wonder why I have so many silver-spotted skippers?” Silly Margaret, didn’t go look it up.
So, a long way to ask you: Do you recommend that sort of starting from the surrounding habitat, taking that into account—these sort of almost forensic exercises to figure out who we could attract? Because they’re probably using those trees at different times and I didn’t plant those trees, do you know what I mean?
A. It’s kind of reverse engineering.
A. So, there’s two ways to approach butterfly gardening, which is to go out there and look at what butterflies are already there or, what you’re suggesting is, go out and take a survey of the plants that you have, and I think that’s something that anybody can do. Even if they aren’t living in a sunny spot where they might attract butterflies, that means they’re probably living in a shady spot.
So, learning what trees and shrubs you have, can be really important to promoting butterfly habitat and butterfly gardening. So, just because you aren’t in what might appear to be the perfect gardening spot, you may actually have a lot of habitat, and you could at least go out and watch the caterpillars, and watch the butterflies when they come to lay eggs, which is quite interesting. So, yes, that’s one of the ways.
And the other thing I would add, look beyond your yard.
Q. Yes, exactly. And again, I didn’t plant those locusts. You know what I mean?
A. Right, so another way to increase butterfly gardening is to help schools, all sorts of retirement homes have butterfly gardens—there’s things you can do that aren’t just in your yard. And, those can be really enriching for you personally, and also for the butterflies.
Q. So, in the beginning, I mentioned, that I was interested to see that the palate wasn’t 100 percent native. And I think there’s one garden in the book, for instance, at least one, maybe more, that uses a plant that I found probably is the most popular—”voted the most popular by my butterflies” [laughter]—is Verbena bonariensis, the tall verbena.
And it’s kind of a self-sowing annual, and I always am sort of selfish: I let some of it sow right by the two windows that are near where I work and sit at my desk each day. So, that I see them even from inside. They’re coming to nectar, and they’re landing on those. So, that’s a great plant, even though it’s not native. The native plants and the emphasis—a lot of the gardeners interviewed are relying on natives and a lot of the things in the charts are natives, yes? [Above, silver-spotted skipper on V. bonariensis.]
A. The charts, I believe if I’m remembering correctly are almost entirely native. And when you come in, like with the Verbena bonariensis, which is an annual as you move north and as you come further south, it becomes a tender perennial. In certain more Southern areas, it can be a bit invasive. So, when you look at plant charts, as butterfly gardeners, or as gardeners in general, we need to be aware of what we’re buying. Because people will sell you things that you may not really want to bring home.
A. Because of invasiveness. So, you have to do a little bit of research there. But, I like what you’re doing by putting it somewhere that you can see it easily and everyday, I actually use butterfly bush for that. I use it as a gauge. I grow one of the sterile-seeded varieties, so it’s not going to spread. I keep it right by my front door, so, it’s a gauge; I can tell what [butterfly] might be further out in the yard, which is nice.
And also, when people come over—believe it or not, I have family members even who have absolutely no interest in going and looking at butterflies—but this plant is right there by the front door and you can have a conversation. Or they do appreciate looking at it if they don’t have to get their feet dirty. So it’s a way of starting conversations.
Q. Right, so the reason, the thing that we’re sort of implying, that we didn’t say yet, about butterfly bush, the Buddleia–they’re not native, but also they don’t serve to support the whole life cycle of any of our native species of American butterflies. At least, I loosely understand that. They’re not a host plant for anybody. So, it can’t do the whole job for any for our species.
Q. Right, so that’s the downside of it.
A. That’s the downside, and it is with a number of things that I’ve already mentioned, the zinnias, the Verbena bonariensis, but, what I found from my interviews is that people use these, but the majority of their garden will probably be native plants, and carefully selected plants that will feed caterpillars.
Q. Right, that match up with a species like the charts do match up with the important species in their area, yes.
A. Butterflies and their caterpillars are very specific. Caterpillars will only eat certain foods. And that’s a relationship that’s developed with the insects and the plants over thousands and thousands of years. So, when I say that people have carefully selected caterpillar food plants—like I had mentioned great spangled fritillary, they use violets. So, I will have violets. [Above, great spangled fritillary laying eggs on violets; below, mating.]
It’s not that you can just put out any old plant, and butterflies will come and say, “oh this looks like a nice plant, I’m going to lay my eggs here.” But there is a relationship and we do foster that, and that’s what you keep referring to the charts, because it will tell you this is a caterpillar food plant for xyz.
Q. For these species, right. So, in the last minute, I just want to ask you to just tell us quickly a little bit about Butterfly Gardener Magazine and the association, the North American Butterfly Association.
A. Well, there are two quarterly magazines for members of North American Butterfly Association, American Butterflies and Butterfly Gardener Magazine, which I’m the editor of. And they just have slightly different focuses. They’re both about butterflies.
And NABA is an association that promotes butterfly conservation and butterfly habitat and the enjoyment of butterflies. So, there’s a lot of different programing, from the butterfly counts, which are going on this summer. They go year-round almost, because in more Southern regions you can have a butterfly count in March, where you couldn’t, of course, in New England.
There’s the Butterfly Gardening and Habitat Program, which I directed and there’s the magazines, there’s a list-serve where you can ask questions. It’s a great organization and I think the book represents the organization very well because it’s a group effort. I interviewed members, they gave photographs, it’s like joining a little coffee club at your local diner where everybody shares information and everybody’s really welcome.
Q. Well, that’s a perfect way to end, because it really is what it is, and that’s how the book makes me feel. It’s like, I can do it. There are examples of other people from my region and elsewhere who are doing it.
for more information
- The North American Butterfly Association
- Butterfly-garden basics from NABA
- Free trial membership in NABA, with access to digital publications
- “Butterfly Gardener” magazine
- Jane Hurwitz on Instagram (@maniacalgardener)
- The new book, on Amazon
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(Photos except as noted from Jane Hurwitz; used with permission.)
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