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Miri’s Butterfly and Hummingbird Tips

Behnkes buyer and well known native-lover Miri Talabac has lots of tips for people who want butterflies and hummingbirds in their gardens.  In her recent talk about these popular critters she started with making a pitch for WHY to include them:  To contribute to ecological diversity, to teach kids about wildlife, and for our own enjoyment.  Sounds good!

Monarch (L) and Zebra Swallowtail (R)


What they Need    Food, water, (preferably in the form of puddles, or a bird bath that holds or mud), sun, and shelter (especially in evergreens).  For sunning, they’re attracted to rocks they can bask on.  And a particularly popular food some butterfly-lovers put out for them is overripe fruit – it really works.

Host Plants are used by butterflies as places to lay their eggs, and then as food by the emerging caterpillars, so including some in your garden will attract even more species. Butterflies are often very picky about which plants they use as hosts, a departure from their more generic tastes in nectar plants. For example, the Monarch caterpillars will only eat the milkweed plant.  So tuck Milkweed into your border or (if you don’t like the look) in an out-of-the-way spot.

More host plants are Asters, Turtlehead, Passionflower, Violet, Queen Anne’s lace, Pipevine, Penstemon, False Indigo (Baptisia), Golden Alexanders, Sedums, Violets, and trailing Licorice plant (Helichrysum), Snapdragon and Pipevine.  The shrub Spicebush is a great host plant, as are these trees: Hackberry, Elm, Tulip Poplar, Wild Cherry, Black Willow, and Pawpaw.  Among edibles, both fennel and dill are great host plants.  Parsley, dill and carrots are, too, while reseeding less than the aggressively spreading fennel and dill.

Nectar Plants are the plants we see adult butterflies feeding on, sucking nectar through their long nose-like proboscis, and an assortment of nectar plants will attract dozens of butterflies to your garden.  Great ones for our area are:  Liatris, Monarda, Echinacea, Echinops, Milkweed, Agastache, Nepeta, Salvia,  Mountain Mint, Sedum, Allium, Eupatorium, Solidago, Ironweed, Aster, Coreopsis, Joe Pye,  Mints, and Oregano.  Shrubs: Caryopteria, Abelia, Buddleia, Summersweet, Buttonbush, and Ceonothus.  Among annuals: Verbena, Lantana, Globe Amarantha, Pentas, and Zinnias.

Butterfly Facts
Did you know that butterflies live just two weeks, on average?  Or that some hobbyists go beyond planting for them and actually raise them?  Miri raises them herself, and doesn’t mind a bit having to feed them three times a day.

To learn more, Miri recommends The Butterfly Site, which you can search by state – here’s the butterflies in Maryland.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds


The Ruby-Throated hummingbird is the only native breeder in our region – the others we see here occasionally are strays.  Only the males  have the iridescent red throat that the species is named for, and he weighs in at just 3 ounces.  These birds overwinter in Mexico and Panama, then across the Gulf of Mexico in 24 hours of straight flying, and show up in our region in mid-April.  They’re primarily bug-eaters but the nectar they drink from plants or our feeders provides the fuel they need to pursue the bugs.

Nectar-Producing Plants for Hummingbirds  Their favorites include:  Crossvine, Trumpet Vine, Honeysuckle, Bottlebrush Buckeye, native and nonnative Azaleas (especially the orange, red, and yellow flowers), Weigela, Buddleia (both for the nectar and for attracting bugs that hummers love),  Hibuscus, Columbine, Agastache (which has a long bloom) Monarda, Penstemon, Cardinal Flower, Joe Pye Weed, Aster, Yarrow, Liatris, Goldenrod, Mountain Mint, Coral bells, Milkweed, Meadow Rue, and Bugbane.  Annuals they love are Indian Pink Sages (actually, all salvias), Lantana, Morning Glory, Cardinal Vine, Petunia, and Million Bells, plus the edibles Fennel and Chives.  Among shrubs, great choices include Viburnum, Contoneaster, Oakleaf and Smooth Hydrangea, Chokeberry, Elderberry, and Pagoda Dogwood

Hummingbird Feeders  These Do work, especially the plastic type with yellow bee guard, shown in the photo above.  If ants are a problem, you can attach an “ant moat” between the pole and the liquid. Asked if red dye is harmful, Miri says that’s unknown, but there’s no need to use it, so she advises against it.  If the birds aren’t finding your feeder, just attach some red ribbons to draw more attention to it.   Hummingbirds are famously aggressive toward each other, so having more than one feeder and keeping all feeders out of sight of each other will reduce the fighting.  Remember that the feeders are for US – the hummingbirds don’t actually depend on them.

What to fill feeders with?  Sucrose, glucose, fructose, or white cane sugar, using 1/4 sugar to water.  What not to fill feeders with?  Brown sugar, fruit syrup, or artificial sweeteners.

You need to change the nectar every 2-3 days, so there’s no point in filling the feeder to the top, then having to throw out what wasn’t used.  Miri fills hers with just 1/4 cup, then increases the amount if the hummers are drinking it all up.    To clean the feeder (every time you refill) you white vinegar or a  bleach solution to kill mold and bacteria.

Feeder photo creditHummingbird close-up photo creditMonarch photo credit Zebra swallowtail butterfly photo credit.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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