How to Win Butterflies and Influence Birds

How to Win Butterflies and Influence Birds
By Arielle McIntyre | Part 2 of ‘Local Hero Brings Back Rare Butterfly Species in His Backyard’
Hello Placemakers!

If you were here for Part 1, than you know that it only takes a little bit of love from a home gardener to make a real impact. 

If you haven’t heard about how San Francisco local Tim Wong helped repopulate a struggling butterfly species from his backyard, you can check it out here in Part 1: ‘Local Hero Brings Back Rare Butterfly Species in His Backyard’
So, how do you create an elegant and enchanting habitat for butterflies and birds right in your own backyard? ​
Well, creating a sweet sanctuary for you and your outdoor friends is easier than you think!

It boils down to this- build it, and they will come. 
Just like humans insects and birds need food and shelter. Each insect and bird has certain plants that it uses for food and shelter. Some of them, “generalists”, can get these needs met from a wide variety of native plants.

Then others, “specialists”, can only get these needs met from a couple specific native plants.

All you have to is provide a safe environment (free of insecticides/pesticides) with their favorite plants, and they will come. 

It might take a season, it might take two, but they will come! Let’s use Tim Wong’s beloved pipevine swallowtail as our example. 
Butterfly Etiquette: Inviting a Pipevine Swallowtail to Lunch
​The first time I saw one of these azure wonders at my home in Cashiers, it felt like time stopped. They are one of my favorite butterflies. It was a crisp morning, and the dew was glistening along the road.

I saw a burst of iridescent blue along the gravel, and moved slowly closer. It was a Pipevine Swallowtail sleepily warming his wings in the emerging sunlight.

​I reached out to see if it would climb onto my hand to warm up, and to my surprise it did. It climbed onto my arm and I sat frozen in awe. I think it could sense it was a bit of a celebrity in this corner of the world, and so it stayed for some time basking in the glow of my affection and the warmth of the sun. 
If you’re like me and you want your yard filled with these magical butterflies, all you have to do is plant the things the need for food and shelter, their “host plants”. Pipevine swallowtails are specialists, which means they are picky, but it also means you know exactly what to put on the menu! 

What native plants are sure to attract these beauties? 

Pipevine swallowtail gets its name in part from the pipevine plant (Isotrema macrophyllum) that it depends on for food and shelter.

​Some insects have such an important and long standing relationship with their host plants, the two are inseparable even in name.
If you want to attract the pipevine swallowtail, all you need to do is plant some pipevine (Isotrema macrophyllum).

Pipevine is toxic to all other insects, except for the pipevine swallowtail. The butterflies lay their eggs on the vine, and then the hungry baby caterpillars eat up all the pipevine leafy goodness.

​This exclusive relationship has some interesting benefits for the swallowtail, as the high amounts of this pipevine toxin it ingests make it unpalatable to its main predator- birds! 

Once a young butterfly emerges from their pipevine-side chrysalis, they can then use a wide variety of flowers for nectar. When nectaring they flutter their wings constantly, seldom remaining still for a good photograph. 
The first time I was introduced to pipevine was by native plant nerd, Adam Bigelow on one of his wildflower walks. To learn more about the relationship between the Swallowtail and its beloved host plant, you can checkout his wonderful article here.
So where do you find Pipevine and how do you plant it? 
You can order seeds online, or ask your local botanical garden or nature center for a cutting. The seeds can be sown directly outdoors in Fall, or cold stratified (kept moist in the fridge to mimic winter). We found this source for seeds in the US.
As its common name describes, the cute flowers that pop from the vines every Spring look like teeny-tiny Dutchman’s Pipes. As the name also suggests, it is a lovely vining plant. 

Many Appalachians know this plant as “porch vine” as its broad leaves are great for summertime shade on the porch. If you’ve seen this plant in the wild, it will grow into giant vines way up into the tree tops! That takes quite some time though.

​The first couple of years in the Pipevine’s life cycle are marked by slow growth and seasons of total decimation by the Swallowtails! Do not fret however, these two species have been doing this for a long time, and the Pipevine will come back strong the year after the butterfly buffet!
Pipevine is a lovely addition to any arbor or trellis, and is especially lovely when combined with flowering vines like native coral honeysuckle (Which just so happens to be a great nectar plant for adult pipevine swallowtails!) It prefers full sun to part shade, moist and well-drained soil. Once established it is quite hardy and low maintenance. 
On Adam Bigelow’s wildflower tour of the Highlands Bio Station, we saw a gorgeous mountain laurel trellis adorned with native Pipevine and Coral Honeysuckle.

​Since then, I have recreated this gorgeous butterfly portal in some of our mountain landscape designs with Dargan Landscape Architects. 
We hope this inspires you to create a sweet sanctuary for yourself and for the wonderful critters who share this beautiful planet. Whether it’s the pipevine swallowtail, or a different beloved bird or butterfly, just remember- build it, and they will come. 
Curious about how to make the earth a little greener right from your backyard?
Early bird enrollment is still open for the 2024 Placemakers Garden Design Immersion | Save $100 through Monday, 1.22.24: 
Some Great Resources for Creating Backyard Butterfly & Bird Habitats:
Audubon’s Native Plant Guide– just type in your zipcode and let it tell you everything you need to know!
Adam Bigelow’s article on Pipevine 
A Complete Guide to Gardening for Butterflies in WNC
Happy Placemaking! 
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