Native Plants That Attract Butterflies

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A Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly rests for a moment.
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Beginning a plot with just one each of salvia, lantana and indigo spires will spread to approximately a 5-foot-square area, which will attract a lot of hummingbirds and butterflies.

A country prairie can seem like a stark abyss to first-time gardeners, but Regina McVey hopes to change this misconception. In just a few seasons she has cleverly turned her acreage into a haven for native plants that attract butterflies, and created McVey’s Native Nursery in Maryneal, Texas.

“Like most hardworking people, I did not have the time or money to amend the soil and buy plants for an area this size. So, I decided to utilize what grows naturally in our environment,” McVey says of her 1 1/2-acre rural plot.

The mother garden and her xeric plants

McVey rounded up the xeric, sun-worshipping perennial plants and flowers that thrive in the sandy loam of the West Texas prairie. She planted lantana, salvia, sage, mist flower and indigo spires on the site of a former horse corral behind her home. With these plantings, she created a backyard utopia bustling with nectar-sipping hummingbirds, alighting butterflies, and a variety of songbirds.

She believes that if gardeners use plants that are native to their areas, they will be encouraged by the rapid growth and low maintenance. She suggests the money saved by not replanting each year be spent on a water feature to further entice birds and butterflies to the garden.

“I began the other flower gardens from propagations out of my first flower bed,” she says.

McVey’s subsequent gardens include many hard-to-find perennials like Texas Bird of Paradise and Salvia greggii ‘Lipstick’. Each flower bed has a unique height and color combination.

“As each of the new gardens become more established, I can add a splash of various color by propagating from one of the older beds,” she says.

Show and tell: native plants

Those who visit McVey Native Nursery get a firsthand demonstration of how a native plant will grow in the garden plot.

McVey places the plants chosen by gardeners on the ground according to height, width, color and bloom time. Beginning a plot with just one each of salvia, lantana and indigo spires will spread to approximately a 5-foot-square area, which will attract a lot of hummingbirds and butterflies.

She suggests sturdy perennials like lantana and salvia for less-experienced gardeners. Lantana blooms in a variety of colors and can be found growing wild out on the Texas prairie.

Each year, McVey adds new perennials found to be agreeable to her soil and Zone 7 climate. She tucks the shade-tolerant ones like pigeon berry beneath her pine and cedar trees. Others less tolerant of wind and full sun are planted in front of a native shrub such as the Texas sage.

Plants that attract butterflies: building a butterfly house

McVey built a small butterfly house from recycled lumber and covered it with a shade cloth. Inside the butterfly house are rocks, native plants and pruned tree branches nestled around a small water feature. Butterflies common to the region flitter about while a bright orange Variegated Fritillary enjoys a spot of sun atop a blue mist flower. McVey has less-common varieties of butterflies shipped each spring.

“I’ll plant herbs such as fennel and parsley for caterpillars to eat since butterflies will not lay eggs unless there is a host plant nearby. Customers get a firsthand experience of how native perennial plants attract and benefit butterflies,” she says.

McVey was overwhelmed by the butterfly’s resilience when her first shipment of butterflies arrived in a large manila envelope. Inside was a folded newspaper surrounded by cotton. After unfolding the paper, she watched in amazement as the butterflies lowered their wings, flapped them briefly, and began flying about the butterfly house.

Another time, when a spring storm blew in with a freezing windchill, McVey found the butterflies beneath the butterfly house’s foliage, still as stone. Thinking they had frozen, she left the house. On her return after the sun came out, however, she discovered the butterflies atop the foliage, flapping their wings, and flying.

McVey also sells and ships butterflies. Most often they are released as a rabble during weddings and special occasions. In the fall, she releases all the remaining butterflies.

Field trips

McVey has conducted several field trips for schools in the area. The outing teaches children how native plants conserve water and benefit area wildlife, and the tours end in the nursery’s potting shed, which was built from recycled materials.

Each group is given a project. Depending on their age, students will make a bird feeder, build a butterfly house or plant seeds. The youngest groups are given their own special butterfly to release inside the butterfly house.

Plants that attract butterflies: fall planting

Plants are not sold in the summer at McVey’s Native Nursery due to heat stress. McVey says her top selling time is in the fall, when other gardening centers are beginning to wind down.

She promotes planting in the fall because the plant will have three growing seasons before it will have to endure the summer heat. Even in winter, dormant plant roots develop and adapt to the soil.

For more information

Follow McVey’s Native Nursery on Facebook to exchange planting tips and to network with fellow gardeners. A website is under construction.

McVey’s Native Nursery, located a mile south of Maryneal, is a certified National Wildlife Habitat and a member of the Native Plant Society of Texas.

The hours for McVey Native Nursery and Butterfly House are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. Contact McVey by writing 503 FM 1170, Maryneal, TX 79535, or calling 325-488-3265 or 325-270-3815.

How to make a butterfly house

Begin with a basic structure, such as the boning of a tent or other small, free-standing structure.

Cover it with shade cloth in any size available at garden supply centers. It will contain butterflies while allowing sunlight in and keeping out predators such as birds.

Add a basic water source. A birdbath or trough will work.

Plant your native blooming perennials for food. McVey plants butterfly favorites like lantana, salvia, indigo spires and mist flower. Plant or add some fennel and parsley for caterpillars to eat. Place ripened fruit on a decorative saucer for an added treat.

Include other leafy foliage and branches for cover from cool nights or glaring sunshine.

Be sure to add a rock or stump nearby so you can sit and enjoy!