My boyhood — and still — friend Crockett Mathis and I were budding lepidopterists back in the day. After grueling hours of “study” at Atkins-Porter School, we would head north to his home on North Highland Street, tank up on chocolate eclairs or apple pie his mother had crafted, grab our nets and take to the fields — well, yards — of homes in the neighborhood in pursuit of butterflies for our collections. It seems Crockett was one step ahead of me in rare finds, the rarest of which was a giant swallowtail we spotted at the corner of East Wood and North Highland streets. There we spied the big black specimen, which had probably arrived on the winds of a stalled-out hurricane from further south.
One swing of Crockett’s long net gathered the prey in, to go on Crockett’s extensive wall-mounted collection. It was the only giant swallowtail I have ever seen here.
All that to say this: butterflies are the rage nowadays, with all sorts of recipes on social media and elsewhere on best butterfly attracting plants. Some people are ramping up as we speak to create a garden that is almost exclusively of plants that attract butterflies.
I still, at this late date, enjoy butterflies, some of the gaudiest jewels of our summer and autumn gardens. Nearly every gardening publication carries a litany of informative articles on attracting butterflies. Well, I might as well get into the act.
I am not a butterfly expert, per se, but I do admire their bright colors and almost hectic flight patterns. I have found, from experience, some of the plants they are attracted to.
There’s the “butterfly bush” and the “butterfly weed,” for instance and aptly named, the former a die-back shrub and the other a native perennial which adapts to cultivation if the fangy root is carefully extracted. Butterfly weed can also be grown from seeds and proves to be a long-lasting perennial.
Butterfly bush is a woody shrub that most often dies to near the ground but comes storming back in spring. Varieties reach from 2 feet or so with the dwarfs, up to 6 feet or more with the larger ones. They are indeed butterfly magnets, but not landscape shrubs and better suited to the flower garden. I distinctly remember — an oxymoron? — the giant swallowtail butterfly Crockett Mathis beat me to. It was attracted to a glossy abelia, Abelia grandiflora of taxonomists, an old favorite shrub plentiful on the market today. Butterflies, particularly summer arrivals, are attracted to them like bees to honey. Newer varieties include some dwarf kinds and others with variegated leaves. All the abelias are excellent shrubs with a very long flowering period, with hundreds of funnel shaped fragrant flowers for days on end.
Monarch butterflies are getting a lot of press and all of it is not good. They are said to be diminishing in number by the year. They migrate through our area from the north, ending up in Mexico or South America, their long migration being one of the wonders of the world.
Some of the recommended plants, particularly butterfly weed, attract them, but the once millions have been reduced significantly in number in recent years.
I fondly remember my hunting days and many dove hunts in the late season — October — in the Clifty area with Frankie and Roger Van Dyke. We often hunted with our backs to the Clifty Creek bottom and watched as thousands of monarch butterflies passed for hours in succession in a steady stream headed south for the winter.
All the plants that attract butterflies can’t be mentioned here but here is one suggestion if you want quick results. Many butterflies, of autumn mainly, including viceroys, mourning cloaks, red spotted purples, red admirals, painted ladies and others, are attracted to rotting fruit. When discarding melon rinds, apple cores, orange and banana peels, etc., place item where they can be seen at close range and just see what shows up.
We also collected moths, mostly night flyers, which have large bodies and thoraxes. Where a quick squeeze in the thorax would kill a butterfly, we resorted to hypodermics filled with formaldehyde on the heavy bodies of most moths. Imagine the scene today of young boys running around with loaded hypodermics. Things are different now.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.