Volume 13, Issue 39 ~ September 29 - October 5, 2005
Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton

Plant a Shrub; Grow a Habitat

Fall is for planting, so that makes late summer the time to plan. By the time you read this it might be too late to put in lettuce, kale, radishes and carrots for a fall salad garden, but you still have time to purchase and transplant a nice native shrub.

What does that have to do with a picture of a butterfly on a flower?

The flower is cardinal flower, a beautiful and brilliant native that is related to tobacco. It is easy to grow in a home garden, and it is blooming now in sunny wetlands, where it attracts not just butterflies but hummingbirds, too.

The butterfly is the spice-bush swallowtail, known to consume the nectar of the cardinal flower. They are black with bright, iridescent blue spots.

The spice bush you don’t see is the host plant of the butterfly (we’ll get to that) as well as a fine choice for home gardens. Its tiny flowers produce a greenish haze in early spring.

The flowers become berries that turn red in the fall. American colonists discovered that the aromatic berries could be used to season food.

Nurseries that specialize in natives are your best sources for these plants. You can find such a nursery by going to the website of the Maryland Native Plant Society: www.mdflora.org. Click on Resources and you’ll find lists of plants suitable for home gardens as well as other resources.

As for a host plant, that is where the females of a particular species lay their eggs. Caterpillars, which come from the eggs, eat leaves of the host plants. Eventually the caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies. The whole process, though common, is fantastic and fascinating.

Fall is a good time to plant shrubs because the soil is still warm, air temperatures are mild and there is usually adequate rainfall. The mild conditions give roots a chance to grow before winter. Cardinal flowers, like other non-woody plants, also can be planted in the spring or early summer with good results.

Spice bush and cardinal flower are wetland plants. So naturally they will thrive in wet areas, but they will also grow well in the typical yard. Cardinal flower might need special attention during dry periods to keep it thriving, so it might be best to put this plant in a low spot or one that gets plenty of water.

Butterfly gardening is a popular hobby, and there are plenty of books and web sites that will tell you how. Having a variety of flowering plants brings life to your garden, but you can go beyond that. By including a carefully selected contingent of natives, you can create a habitat for butterflies to live out their entire life cycle. Have fun.

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