Cautionary note on butterfly/hummer gardens location location location

Michael Gochfeld gochfeld at
Thu Mar 7 07:40:38 EST 2002

With regard to the recent hummingbird/butterfly gardening notes and queries::

My earliest bird memory (age 3) is watching Hummingbirds nectaring at the Japanese
Honeysuckle on my grandmother's porch (Westchester Co, NY)  I could watch these
through the glass at a distance of two feet, and the fascinating early childhood
memory no doubt contributed to my lifelong illness.

Nonetheless (and despite the fact that our current central NJ acre is overrun by
Japanese Honeysuckle) I have never seen a hummer (and rarely a butterfly) at its
abundant blooms.

There is a whole list devoted to hummingbird feeding and feeders including both
natural plants and artificial sources, that focuses mainly on the SE  United
States. There probably is one for butterfly gardening as well an NABA has a
butterfly gardening newsletter and local publications.

Books are filled with recommendations (mine included) which work wonderfully some
places and are complete duds in other places.  Don't be surprised if someone swears
by a plant that doesn't work at all in your garden.   What works in South Jersey
might not work in the North or what works in the Piedmont may be a dud in on sandy

There are a number of reasons that I can guess at, but there is lots of opportunity
for study and contemplation to clarify this matter:

1. Edaphic (soil) and climatic conditions may influence nectar production and
quality or the growth form of plants.   pH influences the petal color of some
flowers, why not nectar taste.
2. Competing nectar sources in the garden may draw hummer/butterflies away.
3. Strains of flowers, particularly horticularal varieties bred mainly for looks,
may differ from nursery to nursery.
4. Amount of flower.  Several books have stressed that you need a lot of a
particular flower for it to be attractive.  This may be due to the fact that if
there is only one plant, a hummer can deplete the nectar quickly and then move on.
Even the 4 x 8 ft boxes that we use (our soil is terrible too), may not be enough.
5.  Hours of sun are important for nectar production in some species, and
butterflies particularly like to nectar in sunshine. If the sun strikes a plant
only very early in AM or late in PM, then it may not be good for butterflies which
are active mainly mid morning to mid afternoon.
6.. Availability of caterpillar hosts nearby may determine whether particular
butterflies are likely to occur regularly.  Many butterflies rely on trees which in
turn provide too much shade for small gardens.
7. Pesticide use in the garden or by neighbors (or by misguided West Nile spray

I'm sure others on the list can provide additional thoughts.

1.  Be very cautious about exotic and particularly invasive exotics.  In late
summer OUR best butterfly draw is Black Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) but that must
make some westerners cringe since Knapweeds, particularly Spotted Knapweed, are
considered pests.
2.  In choosing horticultural plants avoid double varieties (stamens converted to
petals) as these seldom have much nectar.
3.  Experiment with plantings and placement.  Choose or create sunny openings for
butterfly gardens.
4.  Try to figure out why plants do or don't work in your area.  (We are surprised
that Verbena bonariensis which has a wonderful reputation is a dud in our garden,
yet when we carried pots into the field it worked fine----same plants).
5.  Develop neighborhood tolerance for replacing manicured lawns with old fields of
Milkweeds and Bluestem grass. ---start a cultural revolution if need be.
6.  Don't expect much in the way of butterflies if you (or neighbors) use
insecticides for instance on nearby fruit trees. Bt---that wonderfully natural
pesticide ------specifically targets lepidopterans.
7.  Take phenology into account.  Perennials usually have short flowering periods.
Choose plants so that there are flowers all season long (at least April-October)

Mike Gochfeld



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