Butterfly weed

Butterfly weed is the larval plant of the Monarch butterfly. As seen in the photo, it has benefits for many other insects also. It provides a shot of bright color in the garden.

The Staunton River Battlefield State Park has a lovely pollinator garden.

The park is open daily 8 a.m. to dusk at no charge.

Recently the VCE Southside Master Gardener Association was asked to assist in enhancing the garden. We are in the process of selecting plants and developing the layout of the new plantings and hardscape. There are several thought processes that we must go through in developing the enhancements.

1. Provide appropriate larval plants. These are the plants that the butterflies lay their eggs on so the larvae will have the appropriate food when they hatch. Examples are butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa for the monarch butterfly or turtlehead Chelone glabra for the Baltimore checkerspot.

2. Consider how pollinators view the world and see colors. Bees can see ultraviolet patterns on flowers to help them find nectar sources. However, because of their wavelength range, they cannot see red. Better colors for bees are yellow and orange. Birds can also see ultraviolet light but also use other clues. Many birds have eyes on either side of their head so they cannot see as we see. This must be taken into consideration when choosing plants.

3. I listened to an informative podcast with Joe Lamp’l and Jessica Walliser where Walliser was discussing how to attract beneficial insects. She said, “We must ask ourselves who is this plant going to serve?” If it is a “nativar” or cultivar of a native plant, it may only serve our eyes and not be appropriate for pollinators. Some nativars are sterile so offer no pollen or nectar. They might be double flowered which means the flower is so tight that pollinators can’t reach the good stuff. As mentioned above, the color may not be able to be seen by the pollinators that need the flower’s services.

4. Consider the flower shape. Tony Avent, a distinguished alumni and perennial expert from NC State University College of Ag and Life Sciences and owner of Plant Delights Nursery, near Raleigh, North Carolina, said “Flower forms correspond to pollinator type.” This creates a win-win situation where the pollinator gets the nectar and pollen and then pollinates another plant to ensure the survival of the species. Yarrow Achillea has a flat umbel that holds many tiny flowers so is a feast for bees, beneficial flies and butterflies. Tubular flowers such as beardtongue Penstemon attract hummingbirds. If the tubular flower has scent like the native honeysuckle Lonicera it may attract hummingbird moths.

5. Have something blooming during the entire growing season. Pollinators are present during most of the spring, summer and fall. Food needs to be available in early spring until frost. There is no one plant that blooms that long, so a diversity of plant selection is important.

6. The four portions to a sustainable wildlife habitat are to provide food, water, shelter and a place to raise young. With the plantings, we will provide food but need to be sure the other three are covered. Water can be a birdbath and a shallow pan filled with pebbles for a place for insects to rest while they drink. Shelter is already accommodated with the existing plantings and the proximity to the forest edge. A place to raise young can be handled through some nesting boxes for the birds and a bee hotel to give native bees a place to lay eggs. Larval plants will support the butterflies.

You can visit the Pollinator Garden now and watch the progress. Since summer is not a great time to plant, we’ll be focusing on fall plantings. You can learn more at the Staunton River Battlefield State Park’s website.

While we are all still practicing social distancing due to COVID-19, and all Halifax County buildings are closed to the public, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an extension master gardener or extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu or ask@ssmga.org. If you can’t email, you can call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383 giving us your name, telephone number, and nature of the call. The help desk phone is checked timely and someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask and make a visit to the Staunton River Battlefield State Park.

Cornell is a Southside Master Gardener with the Virginia Cooperative Extension.