What are the very best butterfly plants for Mississippi gardens?

It’s a real head-scratcher, because not all butterfly plants are great garden plants, and not all of our many butterflies find their way to all gardens anyway.

You’ll get googly-eyed from Googling the topic and end up sidetracked times 10. You’ll get frustrated, because so much of the information online is in generic lists done by national organizations. But if you want to ID the most common in our state — my favorite site is done by actual Mississippians, with fantastic photos and all — put out just last year by a group called Mississippi’s Lower Delta Partnership. The website is LowerDelta.org; click on Delta wildlife.

Anyway, as far as best butterfly plants, I mostly go by what happens in my own little cottage garden in Jackson. A few years back, butterfly lover Eve Dingus and I designed and planted a 60,000-square-foot butterfly house at the Jackson Zoo, which had all sorts of over researched stuff in it. But when I wanted photos of actual butterflies, I headed to my over-planted yard, which almost by accident is full of butterfly and hummingbird plants.

Some plants are more caterpillar hosts than anything. Hardest-hit are cabbage, broccoli, fennel and passion flower vine. And let’s not mention the finger-size tomato hornworms!

My garden has plenty of bumble bees, a few honey bees and lots of little pollinator flies, including the very active “hover fly,” which looks all the world like a small yellow jacket wasp with big eyes. These insects are actually more loyal and active pollinators than many of the showier butterflies that mindlessly flit through.

Besides, because I live in town, surrounded by lots of wooded lots, I don’t have a huge variety of butterflies. I do see the occasional big black swallowtail, sometimes a yellow-striped tiger swallowtail, and a few migrating monarchs. But mostly I see hair streaks, blues, yellow sulphurs, fritillaries, pearl crescents, buckeyes, question mark, eastern comma, cabbage white and red-spotted purple admiral, which looks a lot like a swallowtail.

Oh, and the cool clear-winged “hummingbird moth” that looks like a bumble bee but hovers like a hummingbird, and lots of my favorite little “skippers” — neither butterflies nor moths but common and comically delightful.

All this is on a small lot in an older part of a city. Imagine what it’d be like if I had an open field with lots of wildflowers along the fencerows and edges of woods.

So here are my Top 10 butterfly plants, which make the cut because they thrive with no care, flower a long time, are either perennial or generally available at garden centers, and are constantly covered with butterflies: Zinnias, perennial salvias, lantana, the shrub called abelia, gaura, tropical milkweed, African blue basil, purple coneflower and — one of the all-time best — tall “purpletop” verbena (V. bonariensis, if you want to look it up). All those are just ... wow.

I know, that’s only nine. But the Top-10th spot one is tied between monarda, porter weed, Mexican flame vine, cypress vine, liatris, pentas, ironweed, goldenrod, summer phlox and cleome. And the native wild ageratum and asters.

Many of these also happen to be nectar-rich hummingbird plants as well. Even zinnias, one of the best “starter” flowers for young gardeners, are also attractive to hummingbirds, partly because of the small insects that can be found in centers of flowers.

Anyone with a sunny spot in the yard can have a handful of these plants. And even if you don’t have many butterflies, you’ll enjoy their dependable, drought-hardy summer flowers.

nFelder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.

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