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Butterflies in the Garden

Ozarks Gardening
Jim Long

Butterflies in the Garden

Our open house for readers of this column last week was a huge success. I was pleasantly surprised to have visitors come, just to visit my garden and talk plants from as far away as Wichita, Kansas, Oklahoma, Joplin and St. Louis. Thank you, it was a pleasure to meet and visit with so many of you who read my columns, blog and books.

Butterfly season is upon is. The monarchs returned weeks ago, about the time the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) started flowering. Tourists were out with their pocket knives and trowels along the roadsides, trying to dig up a piece of the brilliant orange-flowered plants. (Plants don’t transplant well when in bloom and besides, the root of butterfly weeds go down sixteen to eighteen inches between the rocks).

I hosted a group of visitors in my garden last summer and as I toured them through the herbs, I stopped beside a big clump of fennel to point out a caterpillar. Just as I pointed, a woman spoke up and said, “Oh I hate those nasty things. I keep a can of kerosene in the garden and a pair of gloves beside it. Every time I see one of those black, green and yellow stripped devils, I put on my gloves and toss them into the kerosene and watch them die.”

I noticed the gaping, open mouths of others in the group but before I could respond to the lady, she pointed in the air and said, as if on cue, “Ohhh, look at the butterfly. I just love butterflies, I wish I had them in my garden.”

When she finally quit chattering, I again pointed at the stripped caterpillar on the fennel. “Ma'am,” I said, “see the butterfly? See the caterpillar? They are one and the same thing.”

She gasped, and literally went pale. She had never made the connection between the stripped caterpillar and the black swallowtail butterfly, and promised she would never hunt them down and douse them with kerosene again.

The black swallowtail butterfly is one of the larger and more beautiful of our summer butterflies. Granted, the caterpillar will eat a leaf of fennel, or of dill, or even a leaf or two of parsley. But they never eat an entire plant, nor do they even harm the plant as far as I can tell. And the benefit you get from having another pollinator in the garden is worth a leaf or two. You’ll find swallowtails on many flowers, including zinnias, sweet peas, daisies and more. When they visit those flowers, they are sipping the nectar and in turn, pollinating the flowers. Butterflies are a benefit as well as one of the most decorative things you can have in the garden. Let them be, don’t spray to get rid of the caterpillars, they truly do no harm. And the beauty they add to a summer morning is a bonus.

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