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Brenda's Garden
Butterflies in Brenda's Garden
by Brenda Beust Smith
Sunday, August 02, 2009

Zinnias are a popular garden attractor of a wide variety of butterflies.Zinnias are a popular garden attractor of a wide variety of butterflies.

I've watched you now a full half-hour;
Self-poised upon that yellow flower
And, little Butterfly! indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.

-- William Wordsworth, "To a Butterfly"

I swear I'm seeing more, and larger, butterflies this summer than I've ever seen in my yard here in Houston.

Could it be Ike so devastated the coastal habitat highways that they are being forced inland? 

Could it be the incredible summer heat and drought have so impacted usual native plants so much these jewels of nature are turning to areas (like our landscapes) where we are artificially providing more water than nature does?

I don't know, but I love it!

Mexican orchid treeMexican orchid tree

One of the most popular plants in my yard for these delightful creatures is the Mexican orchid tree. 

Chronicle Garden Editor Kathy Huber gave me my start of Bauhinia mexicana and if I may quote from her info (

“Mexican orchid tree, blooms nonstop, doesn't get too big and has a nice, full shape. It's drought-tolerant and attracts butterflies, especially swallowtails.”

The flowers, as you can see, are different from the usual native bauhinias (orchid trees). They produce what looks from a distance like a feathery white bloom, and are they ever hardy.  I have watered mine maybe twice this summer, and it has bloomed nonstop right outside my kitchen window.

What you really want outside your kitchen window is a plant that attracts a lot of butterflies and hummingbirds.  This does both.

Butterflies are said to be more attracted to red, yellow, orange, pink or purple flowers than to blue.  (But they sure do love my white Mexican orchid tree.)  They like flat-topped or cluster flowers (zinnias are typical flat-top flowers) and they like short flower tubes (as on cupheas).

They want their feeding stops to be out in the open, so they can watch all around for enemies.  You rarely see butterflies feeding on shade flowers.

I also have seen a lot on my butterflyweed (a MUST!), porterweed, hardy salvias, hibiscus, coral fountain plant, well, you name it and it's probably had a butterfly on it this summer.

A buddleia at Mercer Arboretum & Botanic GardensA buddleia at Mercer Arboretum & Botanic Gardens

Buddleia is a great butterfly plant I wish I could grow.  It likes a sunny spot in well-drained, sandy or at least very friable soil.  I have gumbo clay that floods. 

Buddleia will always be close to my heart.  I did get one to bloom one time, in a garden at the upper edge of the drainage ditch in front of our house.  It's an indelible memory from the Allison Flood. 

I was sitting in the window of my two story house, looking down at the four to six foot-deep flood waters that not only surrounded our home, but filled the first floor as well.  Above the swirling “river,” a white buddleia bloomed, its plumes of flowers swaying back and forth in the flow. 

It probably kept me from going totally insane as I waited for Husband to find a way back into Houston from our now Ike-destroyed Bolivar beachhouse.

The buddleia died not too long afterwards.

Much nicer to think about butterflies.

If you'd like to attract more to the garden, be sure to have a water source nearby.  It can be a pond, or just a bird feeder.  The trick is to have a gradually sloping side so the creature can stand at the edge and drink. 

Or. put a shallow pan filled with coarse sand in the garden.  Keep it filled not to the brim, but to a just visible level, with water.  Butterflies like to "puddle" (drink water from puddles). 

Above all, don't kill every caterpillar in your garden!  Pesticides sprayed anywhere in the landscape might impact butterflies flying by. 

• • •

Brenda Beust Smith's "Lazy Gardener's Guide on CD" includes a Butterfly Garden Design for the upper Texas Gulf Coast area. 

One way to bring butterflies in even more quickly is to set out plates of rotting fruit.  Hummm....caviar to butterflies.

The butterfy houses are nice, very pretty and they make a political statement, I suppose.  But don't count on them to actually house butterflies.  On the other hand, butterflies do need to rest.  They like flat stones in sunny areas. 


Brenda's "THE LAZY GARDENER'S GUIDE ON CD" — a gardening book on CD — offers:
• 12 pre-designed gardens for butterflies, hummers, sun, shade and more
•  Monthly what-to-do reminders for Greater Houston/Gulf Coast gardens
• Gardening tips for both beginning and experienced gardeners.

$20 each. Make checks payable to Brenda B. Smith & mail to: Lazy Gardener's Guide on CD, 14011 Greenranch, Houston, TX 77039-2103.

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