"Attract Wildlife with Colorful, Fragrant Blooms," the headline screams. Despite my best efforts not to, I've received yet another unsolicited gardening catalog in the mail, and, like always, I'm strangely compelled to flip through the dang thing anyway. This time, a small section on butterfly gardens caught my eye. Plunk down $9.95 and I'd receive a planting diagram and 17 plants, including bee balm, coral bells, coreopsis, columbine, and, of course, butterfly bush. Truly, I'm glad the concept of gardening with the needs of other creatures in mind has gone mainstream, but it's time to fine-tune things. Someday, I hope the majority of gardeners will see that the $9.95 butterfly garden is flawed.

For starters, the butterfly bushes the catalog offers are definitely attractive as a nectar source, but, as  Dr. Doug Tallamy explains in his book, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens, "Not one species of butterfly in North America can use [butterfly bushes] as larval host plants." Indeed, the many different kinds of butterfly bush originate in China, Africa, and South America, so it's no wonder North American butterflies don't find them especially useful. "Butterflies used to reproduce on the native plants that grew in our yards before the plants were bulldozed and replaced with lawn. To have butterflies in our future, we need to replace those lost host plants, no if's, and's, or but's," Tallamy continues.

Because it provides nectar as well as food for the larvae of 42 different kinds of moths and butterflies, Joe-pye weed is one worthy replacement for those butterfly bushes. As for the other plants offered, the lack of specificity is tricky, since some plant types are North American natives while others aren't. For instance, the catalog's rather generic-sounding "dwarf columbine" could be one of the many European varieties, and we might never know. A better-educated public could instead seek out more localized versions like Rocky Mountain columbine (Aquilegia caerulea), American wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), or western columbine (Aquilegia formosa). Native to much of the U.S., the butterfy garden's bee balm and coreopsis, at least, are decent picks, and many types of coral bells are also native to North America and parts of Mexico.

Story by Susan Brackney. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

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