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What's flying now (and other observations relevant to butterflies)...
Buster rabbit, chief critter and numero uno mammal chowing down at the Turner pad, suggested that I address the topic of tasty greens to add to your meadow and/or backyard (heaven forbid that you plant something wild in your front yard too). While wanting to humor Buster, a very discriminating cross between a New Zealander and our common cottontail, I thought I'd slant the plant topic a bit more toward butterflies rather than discuss his favorite victuals.
If we failed to get off our keisters this fall and kill our lawns, turn our soil, mix in several tons of compost, manure, greensand and whatever else we dare add, then a dry winter's day is still a premier time to prepare space for growing plants that benefit wildlife. And if you already have a wild area with unimproved soil, you may need to do very little. It seems too late to consider planting wildflowers that overwinter in rosette form, you say. Well, September is the best time for planting most wildflowers. But having helped Molly make a buzillion seed balls, which she will continue to plant as late as February, I've been reminded that there are natives that you can still plant. I didn't plant frostweed or cowpen daisy seeds until last February and they grew like gangbusters (and since frostweed doesn't flower till late fall and cowpen daisy till late summer on, it worked out great). So check the native seeds and plants available at the better-known sources and get wild! In the meantime, here are some things we might think about.
If you want to see more butterflies in your wildscape, it helps if you have a fair balance of host plants (those which females choose to lay their eggs on) and nectar plants. And it's not as if there's some sort of scientific ratio. As Malcolm Beck likes to say about making compost, it's so easy to do that it's hard to fail. Female butterflies have a superb knack - by smelling out and then confirming by tasting with their feet - for locating any host plants you put out. Make it easier for them, however, by planting each type in groups of two or three. As for the best host plants for various species, you can find a number under my discussion of individual butterfly species (see "Quick jump to Butterfly List"). The easiest ones to start with are those for the Black and Giant Swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries, the Crescents - Pearl, Phaon, and Texas -- Monarchs and Queens, Cabbage White, and some of the Sulphurs. You'll certainly attract the latter with some partridge pea, and a little red clover and alfalfa along the edge of a bed will be much appreciated. And you probably already have some of the host trees growing nearby - hackberries, elms, ashes, or willows. To keep things looking natural, consider mixing your host plantings in with your other native and alien species - yes, I did use that forbidden word "alien". For as repugnant as planting a nonnative might be, if you wish to see more butterflies in your neighborhood, you'll find a few aliens are invaluable, particularly for nectaring.
This is partly because some have superb nectar and bloom from spring to frost, thus providing a constant supply of food, especially during the heat of July and August when most sensible natives have temporarily gone dormant. I'm thinking especially of the following excellent nectar plants:
Note that with one exception the above aliens don't need a lot of water (but remember, all perennials need more regular watering and attention during the scorching months, even natives during their first year or two).
There appear to be a buzillion variables involved in the matter of which plants are - what is the cliché-phrase? -- oh, yes, the nursery shopper says something like, "I want only the BEST nectar plants you have, madam!" Well, well. Consider:
Naturally, there are a number of good native flowers that I've not mentioned here since most of us only have yards, not meadows, in which to attract butterflies. If you have trouble locating reputable sources for seeds or native perennials, email me and I'll gladly send you a list of sources to choose from.
What's been flying lately:
Dec 2; 70 deg; sunshine
Today Dale Clark reported seeing a solitary male Monarch making its way south/southwest. He also found a Monarch caterpillar in its final instar or stage just prior to pupating. Obviously it won't survive freezing weather.
In my garden today all the gang came out to enjoy the warmth. Yesterday morning I found two Skippers, a Sachem and a Eufala, sunning themselves on leaves of the Mexican plum. But today saw a number of Skippers on the move. A Sleepy Orange dominated the yard in the morning (there's nothing sleepy about them cause they fly fast like all Sulphurs; the name comes from markings on the top side of their wings that resemble a closed eye). It fed for what seemed forever on the lavender, trailing lantana. Later in the afternoon a Queen suddenly arrived and joined in the feast. Instead of going south, the Queen will likely die with the first hard freeze. And even later in the day a Gulf Fritillary squeezed in to nectar but seemed to prefer the Turk's Cap. Needless to say, a Texas Crescent continued to patrol the whole yard, never hesitating to let other butterflies (even though they're different species) know that this was its territory.
Dec 10; cloudy and wet week so far
Nothing flying. Will check this Friday and Saturday when the sun comes out and make a note of the temp if I see something.
By the way, I noticed several of the Gulf Frit caterpillars still functioning. One of the larger ones finally spun a silk pad to suspend itself from on the trellis that the passion vine is growing on. It began pupating last week when evening temps were regularly near freezing. Also, I've put several rotting bananas and pears (having slit them open for easy access) on top of the compost pile for those overwintering types that come out on a warm, sunny day.
Dec. 15, sunny and 70 degrees
A Texas Crescent brazenly flew past me to nectar on late-blooming, native Texas aster today. Since little else is blooming in abundance now except for trailing lantana, there is little choice of nectar. Shortly after, an Orange Sulphur blitzed through the back yard, hardly pausing, as if to say, "I'm headed for greener pastures; you don't have much food here!" I called back, "I wish you luck, but you'll be back!"
Dec. 22, sunny and high 60's.
He/She was back. So too was the Texas Crescent.
Here are the most useful guides I know of to help you plan and develop your own butterfly garden or meadow or to learn more about our butterflies. Remember that both the Tarrant County Butterfly Society (see "More Info") and the Dallas County Lepidopterists' Society (see link below) meet monthly and often have field trips in which you are quite welcome to participate.
Butterfly Gardening for the South by Geyata Ajilvsgi. 1990. Taylor Publishing Company.
Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John and Gloria Tveten. 1996. University of Texas Press.
Butterflies through Binoculars: The West by Jeffrey Glassberg. 2001. Oxford University Press.
Four Wings and a Prayer by Sue Halpern. 2001. Random House.
Native Texas Plants by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowski. 1997. Gulf Publishing Company.
Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife by Noreen Dalmude and Kelly Conrad Bender. 1999. Texas Parks and Wildlife Press.
http://www.dallasbutterflies.com/ -- excellent site of Dale Clark, local lepidopterist.
http://www.monarchwatch.org/ -- have a question about monarchs?
http://www.learner.org/jnorth/ -- answers to a trillion questions about monarchs. Most important, each spring they compile an updated map based on current sightings so that you can follow the migration of the monarchs north. They also map the journey south.
http://www.naba.org/ -- the North American Butterfly Association; much info.
http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/butterfly/ -- some practical help on butterflies and gardening to attract them.
http://www.txcn.com/sharedcontent/features/texasgardener/BI_BUTTERFLY.6a12d05e.html -- garden guidelines by Charlene Rowell of Heard Museum and Tina Dombrowski of Texas Discovery Gardens.
http://www.texasdiscoverygardens.org/TopTenButterflyPlantlist.htm -- list of some useful host and nectar plants.
For more information, you may contact:
Tarrant County Butterfly Society (817) 923-8474
Joann Karges or (817) 923-8474
Henry Turner or (817) 922-9484