The Buzz

Anne Heard Stokes Butterfly Garden-by Carson Ellis

As a child, my hobbies included collecting dead butterflies and moths, which I mounted in frames hung on my bedroom walls, and capturing caterpillars to rear in jars (perhaps, born a little later, my hobby would have been catching Pokémon instead-- I’m glad I wasn’t!). These lepidopterans fascinated me, lazily drifting through my mother’s garden on their colorful, powdery wings, and the first plants I learned to identify were stuffed into jars to feed picky caterpillars. It seems only natural to garden for butterflies, not only are they inspirational in their beauty, but they seem to share our tastes in plants: bright colors and sweet summer fragrances are things we can all agree on (I like to imagine what a “Fly Garden” might be like, on the contrary, with flowers scented like carrion!).

Of course there is more to a butterfly garden than pretty flowers, and the Anne Heard Stokes Butterfly Garden at the Memphis Botanic is a demonstration of how to not only attract butterflies in passing, but to create viable habitat for butterflies and other pollinators. Surrounding a small pond, the garden features naturalized banks, planted with Asclepias incarnata, Aster sp, and Solidago spp. Butterflies become quiescent at night and under extreme weather conditions, and benefit from these natural areas as a refuge for resting. The Asclepias incarnata is an excellent example of a host plant. Commonly known as milkweed, this is the only genus of plants on which the monarch butterfly’s caterpillar will feed. There are several examples of host plants throughout the garden, including fennel for black swallowtails, and our native Pasiflora incarnata for gulf fritillary butterflies. As you walk through the garden, look for these flashy adult butterflies, but also lean in a little closer and search for caterpillars and chrysalises!

The interior of the garden spirals around a central area of turf, perfect for a sunny picnic. And quietly growing underneath the turf are hundreds of Camassia bulbs, which will emerge and turn this area in to a sea of blue when they flower in March! It’s important to consider that, while we see the most and the biggest butterflies during summer months, many butterflies are active throughout the year, and early flowers from plants such as Camassia, Cercis canadensis, and Phacelia purshii are important nectar sources for early species. This fall, the Butterfly Garden will be planted with an array of beautiful alliums, which will bloom in the late spring and early summer, adding to the garden’s early nectar supply. July, however, is when the Butterfly Garden truly begins to pop! Summer is when the garden is full of bright primary colors, including blazing red Lobelia cardinalis, sunny yellow Rudbeckia spp, and dreamy blue Lobelia siphilitica.

Lobelia cardinalis, however, is not typically visited by butterflies. Bright red and without fragrance, it is pollinated by hummingbirds. Unbound by its name, the Butterfly Garden provides habitat and resources for a variety of wildlife, including many native bees, flies, beetles, amphibians, reptiles, and birds, and it is buzzing, humming, and chirping with life. I have been personally tickled to watch hundreds of baby toads emerge from the pond, and hop into the garden beds. Frequently when I am weeding, a toad will startle me with a chirp as it leaps from its burrow!

I hope you will take a moment to visit this small, but lively, garden and share in my appreciation of pollinators of all shapes and sizes! And if you share my passion for planting and maintaining a largely native, wildlife-friendly garden, I hope you will join me on volunteer workdays in the butterfly Garden, email Carson Ellis at to join the mailing list!


Posted by Memphis Botanic Garden at 6:00 AM


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