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The great fall activity...
With cooler weather we're seeing the burst of activity that occurs each September and October. Milder temperatures seem to increase nectaring and mating by many butterfly species. Also, we see some species that, largely due to more northward migration during our hot months, we haven't enjoyed since spring. And these numbers are enhanced by the southward Monarch migration, which comes through our area in October with stragglers hanging around our gardens and fields 'til frost. Yes, this is our beloved "second spring," a favorite time for all, whether to add wildflower seedlings for next year or to hike the trails at the Fort Worth Nature Center and delight in autumn blooms and more active critters. All these things remind me of how I love fall.
Certain species that we saw in abundance in May and June flew north as summer heat began. The Cloudless Sulphur, the largest of our yellow butterflies, and the Painted Lady, probably the most widespread butterfly in the world, are examples. This year you probably started seeing Painted Ladies returning to our area somewhat early. They have been busy in our garden since late August, showing a particular fondness for the type of butterfly bush that I found last fall, an outstanding nectar producer that draws many species -- Hairstreaks, Monarchs, Swallowtails, and even hummingbirds - on a daily basis. Of the Sulphurs the Cloudless and the smaller Sleepy Orange have appeared again, and the females are laying their last broods for the year. But the best way to keep Sulphurs around in the fall is to have planted numerous red-blooming flowers, particularly red salvia (S. coccinea) and the small shrub flame acanthus (A. quadrifidus var. wrightii)
The true migratory butterfly, of course, is the beloved Monarch, which comes through our area in greater numbers in October. The main flight path of the fall migration is a bit west of here, say around Wichita Falls or Abilene. But we will see an increase in the number of Monarchs soon. Several people have asked why they have seen some as early as August. Actually, I've seen at least one or two virtually every month this summer. Dale Clark, for one, believes that not all Monarchs migrate north of Texas in the spring and that we probably have a "local" colony, which continues to reproduce throughout the summer months. This summer would certainly seem to support that theory. Migrator or local, you will see many in the coming month, particularly if you hike a bit at the Fort Worth Nature Center, where an abundance of gayfeather (Liatris mucronata) is about to begin its grand fall display and on which Monarchs leisurely feed. To find out more about the Monarch migration, you may see my March article listed in our Archives.
If you can find some time during this busy season, now is the very best time to plant seedlings and transplants in your garden or meadow for the coming year. Growing favorites that attract more butterflies is easier than you might think. Of course, several lantana (L. horrida or L. camara) and butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) are desirable. But great natives abound. My seedlings of Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum) have just sprouted their first pair of true leaves on plants that, come next May, will attract zillions of Swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries and even Skippers. Give them room in a sunny area where you water little and you will love them (I have some extra seedlings for anyone wishing to try them). And a large mass of palmleaf eupatorium (Eupatorium greggi) will bring numerous male Queens and Monarchs around, and it is critical to an active butterfly garden, along with passionvine (native Passiflora incarnata though "alien" Passiflora caerulea attracts best) and pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa). Other native champs include zexmenia (Zexmenia hispida) and Blackfoot-daisy (Melampodium leucanthum) - both loved by small butterflies; the ground cover frog-fruit (Phyla lanceolata), host plant for the lovely little Phaon Crescent and nectar plant for small butterflies; Hercules club (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis) and the herb rue (Ruta graveolens), both fantastic host plants for Giant Swallowtail larvae; our lovely native white aster, heath aster (Aster ericoides), used as a host by Pearl Crescents; purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), on which Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, and numerous others nectar; frostweed (Verbesina virginica), one of the Monarch's fall favorites for nectaring; some partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), two-leaved senna (Senna roemeriana), and common alfalfa for Sulphurs to lay on; and, finally, as large a mass of red salvia (Salvia coccinea) as you can broadcast the seeds of.
Natives such as these will require very little water and maintenance after the first few years of getting them established - unlike the revolting grass lawns that we will soon not have enough water to maintain. Also, landscaping with natives can both be creative and provide a delightful environment, as Molly Hollar and many others can testify. And the greatest plus is that you'll enjoy the wonder of butterflies actively nectaring and reproducing around you along with the incredible variety of predators that they'll attract. Don't fret. Just plant masses enough of everything and there will be plenty of food and habitat for all. And you will find, right outside your door, that fascinating and beautiful creatures will welcome you to each new day.
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