The February meeting of the Richmond Hill Garden Club was all about butterflies.
Theresa Thom, aquatic ecologist with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Inventory and Monitoring Network, illustrated the butterflies most likely to be found in Southeast Georgia and the nearby Lowcountry of South Carolina.
Using slides taken in the area, especially in the Savannah Wildlife Refuge, Thom explained how to identify these butterflies, what plants to use to attract them, and how important they are to the ecology of Coastal Georgia.
Thom presented some facts about butterflies. There are 15,000-20,000 butterfly species worldwide, with 717 of these native to lands north of Mexico and 170 of these found in South Carolina and 160 in Georgia. Emphasizing that an interest in butterflies is not new, she noted that collecting butterflies as a hobby goes back at least to the 1400s. She demonstrated butterfly basics, including their body parts, the way to distinguish them from moths, and their life cycle that involves a complete metamorphosis: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly.
Butterflies critical to the coastal area include fritillaries, swallowtails, hairstreaks, blues, sulphurs, whites, skippers, question marks and monarchs. Some of these are more numerous than others; some are easily found during certain times of the year only; and some are more at-risk than others.
In terms of crucial plants, Thom identified the coastal milkweed species as vital to monarchs partly because of when these plants flower, the native passion vine, and the wax myrtle plant found throughout this area. These and other native plants and nonnative varieties favored by butterflies and caterpillars are available locally.
Thom also emphasized the importance of a diversity of plants in their flowering and nonflowering states. It’s not enough to provide nectar for the butterflies: it’s important to provide materials (usually leaves) for butterflies to lay their eggs, food for the caterpillars, areas where butterflies can rest, protected areas for a chrysalis to mature into a butterfly, brush piles for over-wintering, and puddling spots for butterflies to obtain moisture and minerals from the soil. A patch of grassy meadow, for example, can shelter hundreds of butterflies and provide food for their caterpillars.
Thom stressed the importance of diverse plantings with flowers that blossom in different seasons. She noted that gardeners, especially vegetable gardeners, might not always like what caterpillars do to their plants. However, the importance of butterflies and their precarious existence should be enough to encourage everyone to plant extras for them and to move caterpillars if they are destroying prized plants rather than using pesticides or relying on pest-resistant varieties of plants that might not be friendly to butterflies.
Thom offered some pointers for finding and observing butterflies. She advised everyone to look for nectar-rich plants and muddy areas on sunny days and to move slowly and avoid casting shadows. She also cautioned searchers to look for movement and be aware of low-growing plants to larval plants (such as dill or parsley for black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars) are easy to incorporate into any garden and will almost always attract butterflies. She also recommended getting involved in butterfly counts in the area.
Thom encouraged those interested in observing butterflies to visit the butterfly garden near the visitor’s center of the Savannah Wildlife Refuse located on Highway 17 across the Talmadge Bridge in South Carolina. For additional information, contact Thom at 843-784-6262.