Nurturing Beauty on the Wing
Horticultural experts and dedicated local volunteers help create and preserve the habitat of beautiful butterflies.
Sandy earth, fresh salt air, ocean waves—all bathed in warm sunshine. The unique and breath-taking summer landscape of Cape Cod brings hordes of people to its shores, but it also attracts a less obvious Cape-traveler. This visitor plays a critical role in the natural beauty of the entire peninsula—butterflies. This stunning insect is a key pollinator that adds to and multiplies the life that abounds on the soil between the beaches of Cape Cod.
Witnessing butterflies at work in the flowers is a pleasure that delights any gardener. Lining many Cape and Islands’ streets are clouds of Hydrangeas nestled behind white picket fences, often vivid with the delicate colors of butterflies, bees, and birds fluttering from petal to petal.
Creating such a space to attract these lovely pollinators can be a simple matter of finding the right plants to grow. Jeanie Gillis, the Cape Cod field director of Parterre Garden Services of Cambridge and Chatham, says that when a client asks her for help in creating a butterfly garden, she begins by figuring out each homeowner’s favorite flowers.
“I try to find things that please the gardener, but also the pollinators. Then we pick beautiful flowers for the garden as well as for high nectar counts for the butterflies,” says Gillis, a lifelong Cape Cod gardener and former horticultural expert at Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich. Fortunately, there is a vast array of butterfly-friendly plants to choose from that will thrive in the Cape’s sometimes challenging maritime climate. Easy-care garden favorites such as perennial sunflowers, coneflowers, and lavender are all butterfly magnets, as are shrubs such as Hydrangeas and of course, the butterfly bush.
“Some of my perennial favorites are Turtle Head, Anise Hyssop, and Butterfly Weed“ says Gillis. “The Butterfly Weed’s color orange can be hard to pull off in a garden, but it can look beautiful paired with other plants. And I always add Hydrangeas to gardens, which are natural to our habitat, so they thrive—and just are so beautiful.”
Gillis explains that butterflies love different Hydrangeas such as the Lacecap, Panicle, and standard Oak Leaf varieties, all of which are iconic seaside garden/landscape choices. The horticulturalist notes that it is also a wise idea to include some native grasses to support your garden, such as Gillis’ favorite, Blue Stem. A diverse array of plants is necessary so that things are blooming at different times, creating a garden that will never cease to attract pollinators.
“One of the other things that you have to include with all these beautiful sources of nectar is a water source, like a bird bath, or a water feature,” stresses Gillis. Last but not least, Gillis explains that it is a good idea to create your own source of compost to enrich the Cape’s sandy soil, and to be diligent about watering—especially when establishing new plants. For a lower-maintenance garden, keep it natural and native, advises Gillis.