A swallowtail convention


Joe Pye weed in JulyLate this afternoon was intermittently sunny, then cloudy as storms passed nearby. But, no matter, throngs of Tiger swallowtails (below) dropped by the garden to sip nectar from a variety of blooms. On cloudy days the number of bees and butterflies is far fewer, I suppose because sun brings out the flowers’ scent, but not today. This is more butterflies at once than I’ve seen before.  Today, there are only swallowtails and an assortment of various colored moths, and of course the usual assortment of bees, wasps, and hoverflies, but no other butterflies. The horde of pollinators is reason enough to be thankful that insecticides are not used in this garden.Butterfly on Mountain mint

The butterfly bushes (Buddleia) have recently perished in the waterlogged soil of the lower garden, and the swallowtails seemingly have no interest in Butterfly weeds (Asclepias tuberosa), but there are plenty of flowers that they seem quite excited about. Two compact growing Joe Pye weeds (Eutrochium dubium ‘Little Joe’, formerly Eupatorium) at the far edge of the large koi pond attract a dozen swallowtails, and along with numerous dragonflies darting across the pond there is a dizzying buzz of activity.Tiger swallowtails on Joe Pye weed

In several weeks, tall, native Joe Pye weeds (Euthrochium purpureum) growing in the swampy ground behind the garden will arch far over the cattails and brambles, but only this compact cultivar is flowering today. The blooms are not much smaller than the full size native’s, but the four foot size is much more manageable for most gardens. The dusky, lavender blooms of Joe Pye are not striking in the manner of other brightly colored summer flowers, but they have a subtle charm and butterflies undeniably prefer them.

While Joe Pye prefers a moist setting, this spot by the pond is dry, and perhaps more shaded by a wide spreading crapemyrtle than it would like. But, a half day of sunlight seems sufficient to make it happy, and even through the heat of August it shows no sign of stress. ‘Little Joe’ is perfectly suited to the back of a perennial border, where a medium height filler is needed between taller shrubs and trees, and particularly where butterflies are desired.Chaste tree in July

A few days earlier, I noticed a number of bees were attracted to the blooms of the Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus, above), but today there are a handful of swallowtails also. These go about their business without acknowledging the presence of the others, though occasionally the butterflies seem agitated if another swallowtail veers too close.Tiger swallowtail on Mountain mint

On a sunny afternoon, the mass of Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum,above) attracts hundreds of pollinators, mostly bees, wasps, and hoverflies, but also an occasional group of butterflies. I often approach the spreading native mint with caution so as not to disturb wasps, though they seem oblivious to my intrusion. The flowers of Mountain mint attract pollinators for a few months, while blooms of Joe Pye and Chaste tree are effective for a much shorter period.

By contrast to the sunny parts of the garden, the shaded areas seem more tranquil, with much less activity. Here, there will be an occasional bee, or a butterfly, usually on its way to visit the Joe Pye weed.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. I saw one last week in my garden! Only one, though, and it was gone before I could grab a photo!
    wow! I’m impressed with everything about this post and pics!

  2. Susan Morgen says:

    Butterfly Weed is what the monarch caterpillars eat. There are toxins in it to protect them from predators. Butterflies need plants for both their phases. Enjoyed the photos.

  3. I have swallowtails clustering around my cup plant this week. My Joe Pye is just starting to bloom. I also have mountain mint, both the broad leaf form and the thinner leaf variety, which so far doesn’t spread as vigorously as the broad leafed one. It must taste delicious because the pollinators love it.

  4. The Belmont Rooster says:


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