As looks go, the spindly, gangling milkweed isn’t much prettier than its ungainly name. But monarch butterflies find it simply irresistible. Milkweed is the host plant for monarchs; if you plant one, you’ll soon have monarchs swarming around it, feeding on its small flowers and depositing eggs under the leaves. Before long, you’ll see caterpillars stripping the milkweed of those leaves as fast as the plant can grow them. This doesn’t help the poor plant in the looks department, but you can take heart in knowing that you’re doing something good for the environment. And those butterflies are pretty enough to make up the difference.
This month is a good time to start a garden that will attract both butterflies and ruby-throated hummingbirds, says Jim Mizell of Mizell Farms. Butterflies are plentiful now, and it’s the start of the spring hummingbird migration; warm-weather perennials installed now will be around for the birds’ fall migration, from early August to late September.
“It’s quite a sight to look out your back door or to be sitting on your back porch and have hummingbirds buzzing around your head all the time, busy as bees,” says Mizell. “Or to look out at your garden, and it’s alive with all those butterflies flitting around in it.
“With very little care, very little effort on your part, you can help the environment,” he says. “Everybody wants to be environmentally friendly. Well, change a few plants in your landscaping, and you can make it very friendly to birds and butterflies.”
Both butterflies and hummingbirds like the same type of plants: those that produce nectar and have flowers with a “throat.” Lantana, which has short-throated blooms, is a good choice, provided you select one of the larger nectar-producing varieties. Another attractive plant that grows well in South Louisiana is the Mexican Cigar, a species in the Cuphea family, which bears orange flowers and grows to about 3 feet.
“It’s a heavy nectar producer, easy to care for,” Mizell says. “And here, it will bloom seven to nine months out of the year.”
Porterweed, a tender perennial that can grow to heights of 6 feet or more, also produces plenty of nectar-rich blooms. Like a lot of plants that are good choices for wildlife gardens, it’s native to the Southeast.
It’s a common misconception, Mizell says, that hummingbirds will flock to a garden with red flowers. True, the color will attract the birds, but so will a red deck chair cushion. “If that red flower does not produce nectar, he’s only going to come to investigate,” he says. “He’s not going to stick around.”
Getting wildlife to come to your garden to feed is one thing, but to really watch the cycle of nature play out in your backyard, you also need a few host plants. “The flowers will attract the mature butterfly,” Mizell says. “And that butterfly has two things on her mind: eating and laying eggs. If she’s in your yard eating, you want to keep her there. So you need a place where she can lay her eggs.”
Plant milkweed for monarchs and something from the parsley family, such as Queen Anne’s lace or dill, for black swallowtails. And the beautiful eastern tiger swallowtail likes the tulip tree, among other host plants. (The Big Sky Institute at Montana State University has a good list of butterflies and their host plants, specific to regions around the country, on its Web site, www.butterfliesandmoths.org).
Another important point that should be obvious: If you have a wildlife garden, you cannot use insecticides. Ideally, you won’t need to because you also will be attracting predators that help keep the “bad” insect population in check.
Mizell Farms sells butterfly and hummingbird garden kits for a 10-foot-square patch of ground, with the mix of plants altered for the amount of sunlight the spot receives. Any nursery should be able to help you assemble a wildlife garden, but it’s important to know what each plant will look like when it matures and whether the space is compatible; if you put a young lantana in a too-small spot, it will soon outgrow it.
As for hummingbird feeders, Mizell says there’s no need to use a commercial food with red dye –– just make your own, using one part sugar to four parts water, and make sure feeders are cleaned and refilled every third day in summer.
And don’t fret about feeding them all that sugar. “You don’t have to worry about your hummingbirds getting fat,” he says. “They burn off that energy.”