Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN


June 16, 2014

PLATEAU GARDENING: Butterfly gardening      

CROSSVILLE — Butterflies get nourishment and drink water by sipping liquids through a flexible straw-like appendage of their mouth called a proboscis. Most get sugar and other essential nutrients from nectar-bearing blossoms. Garden flowers that are good nectar sources include purple cone flower (Echinacea purpurea), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia species), daisies, sunflowers, bee balm (Monarda) aster, lantana, zinnia, marigold, coreopsis, poppy, cosmos, phlox, salvia, gayfeather also called blazing star (Liatris spicata) and verbena.

Native plants like golden rod, Joe-Pye-weed, milkweed (Asclepias varieties) and honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempervirens) more often found in wildflower gardens are also butterfly magnets. Butterfly bush (Buddleia species), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), the redbud tree (Cercis Canadensis) and locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) are woody ornaments with nectar-rich blossoms which draw adult butterflies, too. In addition, some butterflies suck up fluids, salts and other elements from mud, decaying fruit and vegetation or from dung and carrion. Create a drinking spot near or within your butterfly garden with a bowl or saucer filled with moist sand.    

The pretty butterflies, skippers and moths we enjoy seeing flit from flower to flower are only one phase in a four-stage life cycle. Each starts as an egg on a plant leaf specifically chosen by the female butterfly because that is the type of leaf the caterpillar needs to eat after hatching. The plant or plants that support the growth of butterfly or moth larva are known as "host" plants. Caterpillars eat and eat until they are full size. Each then forms a pupa or chrysalis. Inside this protective case the body parts of the worm-like larva change into those of the winged creatures we recognize as butterflies. Host plants for caterpillars may be entirely different than the flowering plants adult butterflies seek out for nectar but having plants which provide food for both the caterpillar and adult butterfly in close proximity increases opportunities to see behaviors throughout the entire reproductive cycle.

On their website, the Middle Tennessee chapter of the North American Butterfly Association lists "Top Caterpillar Food Plants" in their free downloadable Butterfly Gardening Guide. Red cannas (Canna generalis), cherry tree, English plantain, milkweed (Asclepias species), Passionvine (Passiflora incarnata), parsley, dill, fennel, pussy toes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), clovers (Trifolium varieties) and violets are all on that list. Do heed the advice on the importance of selecting a sunny site with shelter from the elements when planning your butterfly habitat, but cautions about expense and maintenance seem overstated.

My wildflower meadow was started from seed and contains flower varieties that don’t have high water requirements so a minimal amount of time, money and irrigation have been needed to keep it lush over the past four years. Maintenance isn’t arduous either. The meadow does require an annual weeding to eliminate grasses and mulching with composted leaves as well as over-seeding with a wildflower mix every two years to renew annuals and tender perennials.

Though there is a "Tennessee Butterfly Checklist" on the NABA web pages, I prefer the interactive features of the Tennessee butterfly roster at Clicking on any Tennessee butterfly listed on that Butterfly Site page links to information at Butterflies and Moths of North America. Color pictures there show all of the life forms — egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and adult for that species. There is a life history and run down on plants for nectar and for hosting caterpillars.

Seeing photos of butterflies and skippers that resembled those that frequented my yard helped me learn their names and select the right plants to encourage those local species to reproduce in my wildflower meadow. Tennessee gardeners planning a butterfly garden should find all three of these web references helpful.

• • •

Plateau Gardening is written by Master Gardeners for gardeners in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland Region.  Contact UT Extension Cumberland County at P.O. Box 483, Crossville, TN 38557 (931-484-6743) for answers to horticulture questions, free publications and to learn about the Master Gardener program. Send email comments or yard and garden inquiries to Master Gardener Rae ( 

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