Hummingbird and Butterfly Island

This demonstration garden is in the middle of the parking lot.

Hummingbirds are a sure sign that the seasons are changing – we see them during their migration through Houston spring and late summer to early fall. The hummingbirds we see in late summer are the most fun. Ruby-throated hummingbirds spend a few weeks feeding to fatten up for their flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Males will stake out a feeding territory and defend it vigorously from all other hummers as well as butterflies, bees and wasps. Hummingbirds, like most other birds, have no sense of smell, but have extremely acute vision. They have four types of color receptors, and the ability to see in the see into the ultraviolet range . Their favorite flowers tend to have little or no fragrance, but plenty of color. Tube shaped flowers in red or orange are sure to attract these small birds.

Butterflies are weak fliers and will appreciate a food source with a lot of blooms in easy reach. The gravel paths provide a source of minerals for butterflies. Take a look at the paths when we water on a hot summer day. Butterflies will land on the gravel and sip the minerals suspended in the puddles.

While adult butterflies may visit many different flowers in search of nectar, their larva (caterpillars) are exceedingly particular. Caterpillars have specific food requirements; if these food plants are not present, adult females won’t lay eggs in your habitat. With that in mind we planted a smorgasbord of caterpillar food. Milkweed, grasses, and Pipevines provide nourishment for Monarch, Skipper, and Pipevine Swallowtail Butterflies.

The nectar plants are easy. Flowering perennials offer nectar to bees, moths, hummingbirds and butterflies alike. However, some flowers are better for butterflies than others. Butterflies need a perch to sit on while they sip. So we planted flowers with a broad platform like gaillardia and purple coneflower. Butterflies can also cling to flowers with many, small multiple flowers like salvias and lantana.

In general, butterfly larvas prefer old-fashioned foods to improved varieties. If your goal is to cultivate butterflies as well as flowers stick with the natives – generations of butterflies have taste-tested them. The native variety may provide toxic alkaloids which will protect the caterpillar from predation. The caterpillar can tolerate the poison, but its predators can’t! Butterflies have also selected plants for good nectar production. Human plant breeders select for color or long bloom season and may inadvertently select out those important butterfly requirements.

Like many other species, butterflies are suffering from a loss of habitat. Urban development takes open places where butterflies breed and feed to create housing, shopping and recreation areas. Coupled with habitat loss, pesticide use contributes to diminishing numbers of butterflies.

You can come to the rescue in a small way. Every living thing needs food, water and shelter. Increasing any one of those requirements increases chances that wildlife will settle in your area. Many gardeners already encourage birds in their yards. You can easily attract butterflies as well.

Visitors to the Hummingbird & Butterfly Island

  • Monarch Butterfly – This butterfly migrates through Houston spring and fall
  • Monarch Caterpillar
  • Giant Swallowtail

Nectar Plants for hummingbirds and butterflies

  • Purple Coneflower
  • Firewheel
  • Yellowbells

Larval Food for butterflies

  • Mexican Milkweed – larval food for Monarch butterflies
  • Gulf Coast Muhly – larval food for Skippers
  • Pipevine – larval food for Pipevine Swallowtail
  • Elm – larval food for Comma butterfly
  • Partridge Pea – larval food for Sulfur butterfly