BUTTERFLIES NEED HABITAT that is sheltered from the wind, has plenty of sun, and contains plants with nectar, colour, and scent all season. Our meadow is sheltered by rows of coniferous trees to the west and northeast. Wildflowers, such as Black-eyed Susans, Many-leaved Lupines, Comfrey, Joe Pye-weed, Oxeye Daisies, Queen Anne’s Lace, vetches, Wild Parsnip, and Phlox have been planted to attract certain butterflies such as Common Sulphurs and Black Swallowtails. A variety of larval host plants like birch trees and grasses are close by. Of course, bees and wasps also feed on the nectar in summer, and birds feed on the seeds in winter.
It’s difficult to plant wildflowers in a grassy field. Although a “natural” method seems to be to just scatter a variety of seeds, very few species can become established in the thick mat of roots that grasses form.
Another method is to dig through the sod, making a hole at least a half a metre in diameter, then plant seedlings or mature plants in the space.
Because we intended to plant a large area with a large number of wildflowers, we plowed a section in the centre of the sheltered area. In 1992, volunteers planted at least 200 species of perennials – not all were native species but all either provided nectar or were know to be the larval food for local butterflies.
The following year, a second section of the meadow was prepared for planting. This time, instead of simply turning the soil, the sod layer was removed. The result was different growing conditions as the underlying soil containing a lot of clay that slowed drainage. Although this section was planted with many of the same species as the first section, over the next years the “plant profile” changed dramatically. For example, many sedges have become established, but the lupines that have spread throughout the first area seldom grow in the damper second site.
In 2009, lupines, bedstraw, and other plants established themselves in the oldest part of the butterfly meadow. In the second section, plants are mainly low growing and tend to be species that thrive in moist conditions (July 2009).
After a couple of years of hard work establishing the butterfly meadow, we decided to allow nature to take its course and see whether the meadow would continue to flourish without our help.
1997 was a particularly good year for Black Swallowtails. On most sunny days, we could see 3 or 4 adults fluttering in and around the meadow. In 1998, we saw Arctic Skipper add to our inventory of butterflies.
In 1998, we noticed that because we had left this habitat alone for a few years, the plant diversity had dwindled to about 50 species, down from the huge number initially planted. The lesson learned is that the Butterfly Meadow needs to be managed, even if only minimally.
Expansion and management
In 2006, we applied for a grant from the Evergreen Foundation to help us expand the Butterfly Meadow. We were missing key species (e.g., pearly everlasting, more New England asters, and more early-blooming flowers). We also wanted to add basking spots — stones and fence posts — to the meadow. We were lucky to receive a gift certificate from Home Depot under Evergreen’s Common Grounds program. And even more important Team Depot offered to help with work on the ground.
A hardy group of volunteers met almost every Wednesday evening to carry out the plans to expand and improve the Butterfly Meadow. In the spring, we rented a rototiller to till two areas where we wanted to plant new native species. Focusing on the south area, we planted 4 Hackberry trees, Pearly Everlasting, Pussytoes, Hairy Beardtongue, and Flat-topped Aster. Over this exceptional growing season, most of these plants thrived. (We can’t find the Flat-topped Asters and think they might have been too small to compete with grasses, etc.)
Most of the summer was spent trying to control the swallowwort (Dog-strangling Vine) that was invading our meadow. Above right, Leslie digs swallowwort out from between the “good” plants.
As fall approached, we focused on the north area, where we not only wanted to plant more species — including Fireweed, Black-eyed Susans, and Blue Vervain — but also construct a split rail fence and a rock pile. Both will provide basking sites for butterflies and the fence will also support vines and allow us to post notices about what we are doing.
We had to remove a couple of Manitoba Maples from this area. Both trees had been damaged by animals over the previous winter and both were shading the new section of meadow. We prepared an area for a brush pile by putting down a thick layer of newspapers, covered by landscape cloth, and pinned down with “staples” made by cutting and bending coat hangers. The branches from the Manitoba Maples were carefully placed on this base. The reasons for the underlayers are to prevent Manitoba Maple seeds from dropping to the ground and growing new trees, to prevent swallowwort plants from growing up through the branches, and – most important – to provide shelter for wildlife.
By July 2008, the new plants in the north plot had grown and spread, filling the area with a variety of blossoms.
In 2009, Diane and a small group of volunteers tackled still another area of swallowwort, hoping to reclaim it and plant it with more wildflowers and native grasses. The work is gruelling, but well worth the effort.