Perennials for Attracting Wildlife

Selecting the Right Perennials can Easily Attract Butterflies, Hummingbirds and other Wildlife to the Garden.

Bringing birds, hummingbirds, and butterflies to the garden is a natural reward for creating a well-designed landscape. A garden that attracts and helps sustain wildlife is one that has benefits beyond just being a visually pretty display.

Female Black-chinned Hummingbird

Female Black-chinned Hummingbird

Planning a garden to attract hummingbirds, butterflies, birds, or other wildlife need not have to be done on a large scale or involve exotic plants. A wildlife garden can even be created from any existing perennial garden. Extensive garden renovation need not be necessary to make a garden into a wildlife-friendly one. Chances are good that some existing plants already attract wildlife (in a good way) and the addition of some more key attracting plants will strengthen this. Once a garden is created for a specific type of wildlife other visitors may soon follow. For example, a butterfly garden will soon attract other nectar-feeding visitors such as hummingbirds, bees, and moths.

There are a few requirements that must be met for wildlife to be comfortable in a garden before they will call it home. Wildlife must have a plentiful supply of food available during their stay. Without food to keep them well fed, they will wander looking for nourishment. Another essential is to have a supply of shallow, clean water to drink located in a protected, yet sunny spot. Finally, the garden should have shelter from weather elements and predators. Once these requirements are met, the garden will attract new residents.

Swallowtail and Tithonia

Swallowtail and Tithonia

For butterflies and moths, it is very important to select a site that is sunny and also sheltered from strong, harsh winds. Butterflies find it very difficult to fly upwind if the wind is forceful or gusty. Sun and its warming rays are important for butterfly movement during cool mornings. To give them a hand, create sheltered spots for butterflies to bask in the sun and warm their flight muscles. A mud puddle nearby will provide adult male butterflies with essential salts and minerals that they need for reproduction. Two types of food are needed for the different life stages of butterflies and moths. Nectar is needed for the adult flying stage and leafy foliage for the crawling larval (caterpillar) to eat. This combination of larval food and nectar food must be available throughout the summer and into the early fall in ample supply. Larval food requirements may be very specific for some caterpillars such as milkweeds and their relatives (Asclepias tuberosa) for monarch caterpillars.

Many people are hesitant to include larval food (called host plants) in their garden because they fear that these will become an eyesore as caterpillars devour the plants. If ample supplies of host plants are available, the damage will be widely spread and may even be very minimal in any one area. Many butterfly larvae eat very specific host plants and will stay contained on plant.

Butterflies often will seek out their favourite flowers because they are attracted to bright (purple, orange, yellow, pink, purple, or red) colours. Place these types of flowers where these fluttering garden visitors can view them. White flowers often emit a fragrance during the night that will often attract moths. Place these near a path or window so that the visitors can be admired.

The shape of a flower also will determine the type of wildlife that might be attracted to it. Flower shapes that attract hummingbirds are often not suitable for butterflies and moths. Flowers that have deep throats, are drooping, or are enclosed are not suitable for butterflies because they cannot land to feed. Their ideal flower is horizontal with a ring of petals around the perimeter for butterflies to sit and rest while feeding. Sweet, pungent, and acrid-smelling flowers also attract butterflies. Only use pesticides when absolutely necessary and all other integrated pest management strategies have been exhausted. Most pesticides are harmful to butterflies.

Butterfly Bush

Butterfly Bush

The following perennials, unless noted, are adult nectar producing plants that attract butterflies. The name in brackets is the common name. Achillea (yarrow), Alcea (hollyhock) – larval food, Allium (flowering onion), Arabis (rock cress or wall cress), Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) and Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed) food for monarch caterpillar and nectar for many adult butterflies and moths, Aster – adult and larval food, Buddleia (butterfly bush), Caryopteris (blue beard), Chelone obliqua (turtlehead) – larvae and adult food plant, Chrysanthemum, Coreopsis (tickseed), Echinacea (purple coneflower), Echinops (globe thistle), Eupatorium (boneset and Joe-pye weed), Gaillardia (blanket flower), Helenium (sneezeweed), Hesperis (dame’s rocket or sweet rocket), Hylotelephium (upright border sedum), Lanvandula (lavender), Leucanthemum (shasta daisy), Liatris (blazing star or gayfeather), Malva (mallow) – larval and adult food plant, Monarda (bee balm), Phlox paniculata (garden phlox), Physostegia virginiana (obedient plant), Rudbeckia (cone flower), Salvia. Scabiosa (pincushion flower), Solidago (golden rod), Verbena, and Viola (violets) – food source for caterpillars.

Green Violetear Hummingbird

Green Violetear Hummingbird

Hummingbirds are one of the favourite inhabitants of the garden. The colours of our most prevalent hummingbird, the ruby throat, are dazzling when the sun reflects from their feathers. Hummingbirds are a delight to watch in the garden because of their child-like antics as they dance from flower to flower.

Hummingbirds will visit flowers of all shapes, colours, and sizes but they prefer tubular or trumpet-shaped flowers that are bright red, orange, and hot pinks. Tubular, red flowers often have more nectar than other types. Hummingbirds feed both on nectar from flowers and soft bodied insects such as aphids and small spiders from which they get much needed protein. Hummingbirds use a lot of energy for their aerial acrobatics and must eat huge quantities of food (insects) to survive.

It takes careful planning to attract hummingbirds to the garden and keep them there. Most important is the need for season-long blooms. Flowers must be open and ready for male hummingbirds that arrive in early May. The males arrive ahead of the females because they have a mission to establish their territory. Both male and female hummingbirds will stay until late August or early September. At this time they leave to go to their winter home in Mexico.

Some people feel that a hummingbird feeder is necessary to attract these birds. What is recommended is to put up a sugar and water feeder in May as a supplemental food source if blooms are scarce. This must be cleaned often (almost daily) during the hot weather so that the sugar does not ferment and potentially cause salmonella poisoning. With smart plant selection, a hummingbird garden can be designed so that a supplemental feeder is not required.

Designing a hummingbird garden involves consideration for hummingbirds need to access flowers from all sides. A garden that has plenty of hovering room so that hummingbirds can gain access to their favourite blooms is ideal. Do not crowd the area with dense shrubs and trees, although they do need some larger shrubs or trees from which to perch, rest, or use as a strategic lookout post.

Columbine

Columbine

When selecting plants, consider that the less hybridized the plant the more likely it will have a good nectar supply. The key to good nectar is to choose a wild or native species instead of a cultivar. The following perennials are known to attract hummingbirds. The common name is in brackets. Alcea (hollyhock), Aquilegia (columbine), Asclepias tuberosa (milkweed), Buddleia (butterfly bush), Chelone obliqua (turtlehead), Dicentra (bleeding heart), Digitalis (foxglove), Heuchera (coral bells), Hesperis matronalis (dame’s rocket), Kniphofia (torch lily), Lilium canadense (Canada lily), Lobelia speciosa, Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower), Lupinus (lupine), Lychnis chalcedonica (scarlet lychnis), Monarda didyma (bee balm), Penstemon (beard tongue), Salvia, and Yucca.

The introduction of a few wildlife-friendly plants can make a huge difference in the garden. Plan to grow some this summer.

Hummingbird images are from Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License. All other images are copyright The Laptop Gardener.

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