Accidental environmentalism – the case of the unexpected butterflies

This is the story of a gardener who discovered that less was more. For years, she had been weeding out the Common Violet from her garden. Violets are unassuming plants that tend to pop up all over the place, including flower garden beds, which the gardener thought should be kept clear to allow other plants to grow.

One year, a small construction project on the lawn resulted in some bare soil in semi-shade. Luckily for the gardener, that disturbed soil did not become covered by invasive introduced plants (which is the most common result of leaving soil bare in Northern Virginia) but rather produced a bumper crop of violets. Their thick, low growth habit seemed like a reasonable substitute for lawn, and so she left them alone.

The next year, the gardener walked out her back door only to be greeted by six huge orange butterflies feeding on her Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). She was very excited to think that she had finally attracted Monarch butterflies by planting this type of milkweed, but as she got closer, she discovered that they were actually not monarchs but the equally beautiful Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly, something she had never heard of before that day. Yes, the Butterfly Weed – a wonderful plant for attracting butterflies – was providing food for the adult butterflies, but it turned out that the Common Violet is a host plant for the caterpillars of Fritillary butterflies. Without their host plants – almost all of which are native plants – butterflies cannot reproduce.

So yes – plant native plants. Let the ones that are there already flourish as well. And don’t be afraid to layer them together. A native plant garden will resist weeds the best if the bare ground is covered by plants.

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2 thoughts on “Accidental environmentalism – the case of the unexpected butterflies

  1. The Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii ) hails from China and is invasive, less so in Virginia than in some other states, but why plant it when there are such wonderful native alternatives for attracting butterflies? Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), on the other hand, is native to Northern Virginia and is a wonderful garden plant – bold color (usually orange – the ones pictured here are a cultivar), tough, long blooming, and the butterflies love it. The hands-down winner in my garden for attracting adult butterflies has been Joe Pye Weed ‘Little Joe’ (Eutrochium dubium), which is truly astonishing when it blooms in late summer. Margaret


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