The Long Road to Butterfly Boulevard

I have been introducing native plants into my yard for several years now. It has not been a smooth or easy road. At first I thought I had some native flowers already. But then further research showed that what I thought might be American bellflower (native) was actually European bellflower (non-native). And the wild phlox (native) turned out to be dames rocket (non-native). The bleeding hearts and lily of the valley are not native varieties either. Why is American versus European bellflower a problem? Don’t they fill the same niche in the ecosystem? Good questions.

The answer is no, they don’t fill the same niche. Just like monarch butterflies need native milkweed to survive, other insects that we don’t hear about need specific varieties of plants to survive. The native fauna is adapted to use the native flora and non-native species just don’t cut it. And, as it happens, European bellflower is invasive and will crowd out other plants. That further reduces the native plants available to native insects, birds and mammals.

So to create a viable ecosystem that supports butterflies, birds and native pollinators we need the real deal – native plants. But it is not simply a matter of throwing down native plant seed. I first had to undue some mistakes I made earlier by removing invasive plants that I had let go or even encouraged to grow. One of the hardest plants to eradicate is Bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria) also known as Snow on the Mountain. It is a common ground cover and works well for that because it is invasive. I first tried to hoe it out of the area I was going to plant. Big mistake. A piece of stem as short as an inch can sprout a new plant. So after I hoed the area I had a fresh new crop of Bishop’s weed! The only way to control it is to remove the roots. So I went over the area shovelful by shovelful and removed the roots. A real learning experience, but it seems to be working in the small area where I planted native transplants. Next spring will show if I was successful.

I also removed hostas and orange daylilies with that technique. The roots of those plants are bigger so it was much easier to dig them out. Then after the weather cooled off in early winter I put down native plant seed mixes in the cleared areas. The seeds need freeze/thaw cycles to activate them so they will germinate in the spring. My hope is that by clearing the established invasive plants, the seed I put down will have a fighting chance to get going before the weeds move in.

The cleared areas include about 1000 square feet of the boulevard on the street. This will be my contribution to the Butterfly Boulevard that I envisioned one day while sitting on my patio under the Linden tree. I had been for a long walk through McKennan Park neighborhoods. I realized that I could walk for miles and the only native species I would see might be an ash or cottonwood tree. As I sat in the shade after my walk I saw one monarch butterfly checking out the milkweed. I used to see four or five at a time. It was then that I realized that the monarchs had to cross a food desert to get to my garden where there are plenty of chemical free plants for them.

So I’m planting native plants in my boulevard and my neighbor up the street already has native plants in his boulevard. Another neighbor a few blocks away has coneflowers and other natives in the boulevard as well. We have created a corridor of native plants in our neighborhood. If people all over town converted their boulevards to native plants, butterflies and native pollinators could travel across town and not miss a meal. It would be a food forest for pollinators. A Butterfly Boulevard.

This post is by Boyd McPeek, Project Food Forest board member at large. Photo by Aaron Burden