Privacy Hedges Attract Butterflies

Planting trees and shrubs on your property will entice butterflies to visit.

  • A pair of butterflies stake their claim on a tree surrounded by wildflowers.
    Photo by Fotolia/sandra_al
  • A butterfly rests on a flowering branch of apricot.
    Photo by Fotolia/allai
  • An azure butterfly sits on a dogwood flower.
    Photo by Gary Noel Ross
  • A mourning clock butterfly recently emerged from the chrysalis.
    Photo by Gary Noel Ross
  • Multiple butterflies gather on common milkweed near a fencerow.
    Photo by Gary Noel Ross
  • A red-spotted purple butterfly rests on a branch; females often lay eggs on cherry or willow leaves near forest edges.
    Photo by Gary Noel Ross
  • A giant swallowtail caterpillar on a plant.
    Photo by Gary Noel Ross
  • A painted lady rests on a plant; this species is one of the most widespread butterfly species in the world.
    Photo by Gary Noel Ross
  • A tiger swallowtail sits on a plant; this species prefers nectar from plants with red or pink flowers.
    Photo by Gary Noel Ross
  • A question mark butterfly rests on a tree trunk.
    Photo by Gary Noel Ross
  • A zebra swallowtail butterfly drinking nectar from phlox.
    Photo by Gary Noel Ross

Butterflies and flowers could be considered a match made in heaven. Flowers provide butterflies with sugary nectars for food. Butterflies in turn transfer pollen from one flower to another — a process called pollination — which guarantees fruit and seed production. This interaction is a poignant example of Earth’s “tapestry of life.”

However, while it is true that butterflies prefer specific plants for feeding, especially flowering annuals and perennials, they most often select other varieties of plants for reproduction. Remember that butterflies have a metamorphic life cycle consisting of four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly). The plants that trigger egg-laying by female butterflies are called hosts or host plants. While the majority of these are also flowering annuals or perennials, surprisingly many are actually trees and tall shrubs.

Take my home state of Louisiana, for example. As an entomologist I have documented proof that of the state’s 125 resident butterfly species, at least 40 lay their eggs on trees and tall shrubs. That’s 32 percent. Oaks rank the highest, being utilized by 12 butterfly species. Of course, geography plays a role, so both butterfly species and host trees vary from region to region. Regardless of locality, however, certain trees habitually rank as important butterfly hosts, and these should be embraced by butterfly stewards.

About plant hosts

By their very nature, trees grow tall and produce shade, which is great for homeowners, but disastrous for the garden’s sun-loving, butterfly-friendly plants. There are reasonable solutions, though.

For urban homeowners, host trees can be positioned a slight distance from the actual garden, which will eliminate shade within the garden. Another alternative is to plant trees and shrubs along property lines.

For those who own sizable acreage, such as farm ground or grazing lands, there is an even greater solution: hedgerows or fencerows. These are defined as narrow belts of heavy vegetation that flank fences erected to delineate property boundaries or separate sections of open lands. Historically and around the world, large landowners, farmers, biologists, conservationists and hunters, to name a few, have had a healthy respect for these overgrown swaths of trees and bushes. Dense greenery acts as a windbreak and creates shade for both livestock and humans. It also provides important habitat, such as cover, space for raising young, and food — think foliage, berries, fruits, nuts and more — for local birds, rabbits, squirrels, foxes, deer, turkeys, and myriad small amphibians, reptiles and insects. In addition, the dense greenery constitutes good venues for time-honored sport hunting. (Recall those high-spirited and colorfully costumed foxhound hunts featured in so many classic British movies.)

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