Turns out the best plants for attracting butterflies to your garden are actually trees. I know! Who would have thought?
File it under the "Well, how about that" category; it just proves that when you think you know it all, you really don't. After attending the Wild Ones native plant conference this past weekend, I've gained a much better understanding of plant/wildlife relationships, and while there was no wild behavior to report, I'm anxious to share some of the more astonishing aspects with everyone as you all plan your butterfly gardens this spring.
It's not that I didn't know that many trees are larval host plants necessary for butterfly survival, I just didn't know how big the numbers lean toward trees. Yet you've seen them, usually noted at the bottom of plant lists heavy at the top with bright candy-colored annual flowers touted as butterfly magnets, the trees sometimes asterisk-ed as afterthoughts.
You can't blame us, because after all, it's right there on those flowers that we see the butterflies in our gardens. And we have the best intentions, wanting to provide nectar to the fragile and ephemeral creatures that light up our outdoor lives.
Keynote speaker, University of Delaware entomologist, Doug Tallamy, gave a thought-provoking talk about the food value of native landscapes to insects. While many people might think they want a bug-free yard, he explains, they still desire the presence of songbirds. You can't have one without the other. Put up all the bird feeders you like, insects make up a majority of bird diets, especially for raising young. And then there are all the other animals that depend indirectly upon them as well, like frogs, rabbits, foxes, humans and on and on. That whole circle of life stuff.
The crux of his talk focused on food webs and plant communities and how they relate to suburban backyards. Insects that evolved "eating local" for eons don't often recognize non-native species introduced from other continents. (Yes, some like Japanese beetles can adapt, in a big way) Most of the vast lawns and many of the specimen trees growing in our yards are truly alien to insects and might as well be plastic yard ornaments. How's that for an eye-opener?
But back to the list, the mind-blowing (for me at least) list. It shows the quantity of Lepidoptera (butterfly)species supported by each tree, shrub and perennial. These native trees used for shelter, overwintering, egg-laying, larval food and nectar source support 100-500. While most perennials averaged 30-40, with many of those butterfly magnets in the single digits.
Most Valuable Woody Plants for Butterflies
- Oak (534)
- Black Cherry (456)
- Willow (455)
- Birch (413)
- Poplar (368)
- Crabapple (311)
- Blueberry (288)
- Maple (265)
- Elm (213)
- Pine (203)
Fritillary butterfly on swamp milkweed The Garden Buzz
However don't think the perennials and annuals don't have value. There are many butterflies that depend upon one, and only one plant for survival. I think that's material for another post. This one has gotten a little long.
Note that the list is for the Mid-Atlantic region, but every region save for some arid desert areas has the rough equivalent of these native trees, some translation might be required. To learn more, I highly recommend his book, Bringing Nature Home.
Well, what are you waiting for....go plant a tree!