Considering the Impact of Butterflies on East End Gardens
HC&G: With butterfly numbers decreasing, what role can native plants play in their survival?
Victoria Bustamante, butterfly expert and owner of Provenance Natives: As more of the plants that butterflies forage on disappear, planting natives can help reverse their declining populations. For example, before turning into a beautiful swallowtail butterfly, a caterpillar feeds only on the foliage of the spicebush, so it’s important to keep spicebush numbers healthy. Last year, I saw only two adult monarch butterflies. Can it be that I will see the end of monarchs in my short life? Lots of plants, like milkweed, attract various pollinators with their flowers, so monarchs and many more insects can benefit from them.
Can ordinary home gardens be a boon?
Absolutely. We have to get past thinking of our gardens as just pretty ornamental places and start treating them as habitats and ecosystems that can make a difference. Butterflies and caterpillars are host-specific—they’re picky eaters that have evolved with plants over millions of years. They have attracted a lot of recent interest because they are so visible, and people relate to them.
What is a monarch way station?
A stopping point for migrating monarchs that are on their way to or from Mexico. When coming north in the spring and summer, their larvae feed on milkweed. I created a way station with the Montauk elementary school: We put in three different milkweeds, some asters, and goldenrods. Asters are fall-flowering and quite beneficial to other insects too.
Why did you decide to launch your business?
I started Provenance Natives in order to grow plants from seeds I have collected on the East End. They possess the local genotype that has evolved over millennia, embodying factors such as climate, animals that feed on them, the salt spray, the altitude, the latitude, and more.
Does that make them better plants in terms of attracting butterflies?
Yes, and other insects as well. Butterflies emerge according to their biological clock and have evolved to appear simultaneously with certain plants that are in flower. If all you have in your yard are cultivated hydrangeas, you aren’t going to see butterflies.
What about goldenrod?
People mistake goldenrod for ragweed. It’s not an allergen, and it happens to be an important nectar source for monarchs.
How should one design gardens for butterflies?
I’m not a designer, but formal cutting gardens close to the house might be nice, along with specimen trees and borders deeper on the grounds, including American holly, chokeberry, and asters. One of my favorite writers on ecology, Doug Tallamy, has said that for the first time in history, gardeners can actually make a difference in sustaining biodiversity.
A version of this article appeared in the August 1, 2014 issue of Hamptons Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Hope Floats