Early Summer 2015

Nurturing Beauty on the Wing

Cape Cod Home  /  Early Summer 2015 / , ,

Writer: Erin Murray

Horticultural experts and dedicated local volunteers help create and preserve the habitat of beautiful butterflies.

Horticultural experts and dedicated local volunteers help create and preserve the habitat of beautiful butterflies

Courtesy of: Shutterstock


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.

Horticultural experts and dedicated local volunteers help create and preserve the habitat of beautiful butterflies


“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.

One of the most important plants a Cape Codder can choose to attract the stately Monarch butterfly is the milkweed plant, a native perennial that used to be very plentiful throughout New England. Milkweed—which thrives in sandy, well-drained soil and requires little care—is a sacred plant to Monarchs, since it is the only plant that the Monarch caterpillar feeds on. The great depletion of milkweed throughout the Monarch’s traditional feeding grounds from Mexico north to the U.S and Canada has resulted in a far smaller Monarch migration in recent years. This has prompted organizations like The Monarch Project of Cape Cod to spring up around the country. The Cape’s organization was founded by Paul Rifkin of Cotuit and Reverend Nell Fields of the Waquoit Congregational Church. The organization’s goal is to plant milkweed all over the Cape and to educate the community on the health of the butterflies, who winter in the mountains of Mexico before flying thousands of miles north.

“During the course of the migration, the female Monarchs lay their eggs on the milkweed leaves, which is the Monarch caterpillar’s only food source,“ says Rifkin. “This cycle is repeated several times over the summer and a new generation of butterflies soon emerges to fly further north, including to places like Cape Cod. In the fall, the migration turns south and, emulating the migration of their forebears, the Monarchs (several generations removed) return to the fir trees of Mexico.“

Rifkin was inspired to initiate the project when he traveled to Mexico and witnessed the initial waking of the butterflies wintering over that starts the migration process. “We rode horses up into the mountain swith a guide. The butterflies began to wake up and I was fortunate to be there on a clear day. The sky was so filled with orange majesty that you couldn’t see the sun,” says Rifkin. “Monarchs have a 3,000-mile round-trip migration, and they end up almost in the exact same trees that their grandparents came from in Mexico. How they might know to go to those trees is a bit of a scientific mystery.”


Horticultural experts and dedicated local volunteers help create and preserve the habitat of beautiful butterflies

Courtesy of: Shutterstock / Lone Wolf Photography


Noting a declining number of Monarchs on Cape Cod after years of photographing the elegant, brightly colored butterfly, Rifkin grew determined to support the migration of the species. He and his congregation began by giving away milkweed seeds last year to anyone who wanted them, at schools and even farmers’ markets. This year, the efforts are even greater, as group volunteers will be on hand at more farmers’ markets, schools, and planting ceremonies.

“We also teach adults and children how to raise Monarch butterflies in their own homes,” says Rifkin. “It is a thrill to watch the caterpillars’ metamorphosis into beautiful butterflies and then to release the butterflies for their long voyage back to Mexico.”

Rifkin says his efforts to save the Monarchs are yielding impressive results. ”I’m getting calls every day now. I just got a message from the president of the National Wildlife Federation. One of their focus points right now is trying to save the Monarchs.” With help from schools, churches, land trusts, government and private organizations—and supportive Cape Codders—the Monarch Project of Cape Cod is sure to find success.

To support The Monarch Project of Cape Cod, or to learn how to plant milkweed in your yard or garden, email Paul Rifkin at paulrifkin@comcast.net, or call 508 737-9545.

Erin Murray

Erin Murray is a writer and digital brand developer whose Cape Cod family roots keep her connected to the sandy shores year-round. She studied writing, publishing and literature at Emerson College, and was an editorial intern at Cape Cod Life Publications. Her love of Cape Cod's unmatched charm led her to write about local artisans, residential architecture and home design. On her day off, you might find Erin strolling Route 6A with her golden retriever, Dakota.