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Set out plants to attract butterflies

By Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.
An eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly finds nectar in a coneflower. Lantanas and zinnias are some other butterfly favorites.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. I did not prune my Knock Out rose this spring. It has bloomed beautifully but is way too tall now. Would it be OK to cut it back now? What effect will that have on it the rest of the summer?

    A. Knock Out roses had a beautiful spring, and this big flush of bloom is ending now. That gives you an opportune time to prune it back, but by no more than one-third. Aim for a graceful, oval shape. This will produce new growth that will bear fresh blooms in a short time. Since your plant sounds like a robust grower, you should see good results in a few weeks. If you do nothing, the plant will only get taller and appear less and less satisfactory to your eye.

Summer’s here, no question about that, and I hope you are ready for butterflies. But if you haven’t given a thought to them, get going now.

Lots of bright annuals filled with lovely nectar for butterflies are in stores, ready to plant. This could be a good project for your children to do this summer.

Annuals require only a few specific things. The first is sunshine, and both the plants and the butterflies want it. Butterflies like sunshine because they like to feed on nectar in a warm spot. And their favorite sources of nectar are plants that require lots of sun for growth and bloom. A spot that is sunny from at least mid-morning to mid-afternoon is best.

Second, they require certain types of blooms that give them a place to land while dining on the nectar. This is accomplished by flowers that grow in clusters, such as butterfly bush, verbena, milkweed, butterfly weed or lantana. Butterflies are also served by flat-topped blooms such as asters, purple coneflowers and zinnias. The right colors are important too, as butterflies tend to go for red, yellow, orange, pink and purple, none of them hard to find.

A shrub-like butterfly bush can become the foundation of your effort to draw these beauties, but it may take a couple of years for the plant to reach a glorious size. In the meantime, go for annuals that are already in bloom and will be with you through the summer and into fall. A top choice would be the bright lantanas in red, yellow or pink or verbena, both of which prosper in warm sun. It is also not too late to sow some zinnia seeds. These plants are fast-growing and provide the rich color and flat top that butterflies turn into a landing zone.

Besides the flowering plants, two kinds of popular herbs, parsley and dill, are host plants for the caterpillar phase of the black swallowtail, a beautiful butterfly. Besides them, many different kinds of garden plants support other kinds of butterfly species.

Two other elements of a butterfly garden provide space to land and rest or warm up their wings before taking flight. The first is a flat rock set in the sun near the nectar plants. A second is a small area of wet coarse sand where the butterflies can drink water and get minerals. A small shallow plan set into your butterfly garden will accomplish this.

And because you want to attract and nurture butterflies, put away your insecticides.
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