By planting native flowers from local sources, you are giving your garden and its insect community the best chance to thrive.
To mimic natural habitat, plant a mix of
- Milkweed for monarch caterpillars
- Native nectar plants that bloom in succession throughout the growing season, March-November
- Bunch grasses to suppress weeds and host other butterflies
The most important thing to consider when choosing plants is to make sure they all have roughly the same physical requirements, such as soil texture, pH, water, and sun. Native plants are more likely to fit within local parameters, but be sure to check anyway. If your soil is mostly clay or sand, or if you think other variables might be outside the average range that most local plants tolerate, try searching for plants through this easy-to-use Clemson Extension tool, the Carolina Yards Plant Database. You don’t have to set any more variables than you want.
Perennial vs. Annual: Milkweed is a perennial, meaning it grows slowly the first year to establish its roots and leaves and it won’t bloom until its second or third year after sprouting from a seed. If you buy larger potted plants, they will probably be ready to bloom right away. Annuals, which bloom every year and then die back to start over from seed, can be a lovely addition to a mostly-perennial butterfly garden. However, they will take a bit more work in the long term to maintain and replace. They are best if you want flowers and butterflies as soon as possible.
Grasses: Native bunch grasses, as opposed to lawn grasses that spread and inhibit the growth of flowers, can out-compete weeds and make your maintenance job easier. They also add texture and color to the garden and fill spaces between flowers, and some even host butterflies. In a seed mix, grasses can be 20-30% of the total. Perennial grass seeds will take a while to become established, so you may still have to deal with weeds the first year.
What to Plant: Milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa, butterflyweed, grows around 3 feet tall, with orange or red flowers. It can grow in well-drained, sandy or rocky soils. It has a deep taproot that makes it hard to transplant, but it grows well from seed. This is the most common variety on the SC coast.
A. incarnata is tall and showy, with fragrant pink flowers, and it does best in badly-drained soil and even clay, hence the name swamp milkweed. You can collect seeds or divide plants to propagate.
A. perennis, aquatic milkweed, grows in very wet soil. It grows up to 2 feet tall, with white or light pink flowers. Its deep taproot makes it harder to propagate asexually. This, along with A. incarnata, might do well at the edge of a pond or lake.
Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is a potential problem for two reasons. Firstly, it blooms for longer than other milkweeds, possibly discouraging monarchs from migrating in the fall until it’s too late for them to survive the cold journey. When monarch parents lay eggs too late in the season, or while overwintering on the SC coast, the eggs will die and those resources will have been wasted. Secondly, tropical milkweed can transmit diseases between butterflies when used by too many generations successively. On the other hand, it is good food and shelter for them and it is attractive in gardens. If you already have it planted, don’t feel bad, and don’t pull it out! But do plant other varieties, and do cut down the tropical milkweed in the fall when other species die back.
- Sorghastrum nutans, indiangrass – the South Carolina state grass grows tall and colorful in the fall.
- Chasmanthium latifolium, river oats – prefers shade, hosts some butterfly larvae.
- Schizachyrium scoparium, little bluestem – hosts butterflies, attracts birds.
- Elymus hystrix, Eastern bottlebrush grass – attracts butterflies.
Nectar plants with early and late blooms
This list is a suggestion of some flowers that are relatively easy to find, that grow in a broad range of conditions. By no means is it a complete or definitive list, nor are the categories strict.
Where to get seeds and plants
- Most nurseries don’t specialize in native, no-spray plants, but it’s okay to go someplace like Hyam’s anyway. Familiarizing yourself beforehand with a list of plants you want will help you resist their temptingly lovely but non-native displays.
- Roots and Shoots Backyard native plant nursery in West Ashley.
- Lumber River Native Plants North Carolina seller of wetland plants, if you happen to be in that area or want to buy them online.
Seeds and seed mixes online:
- Roundstone Seed A variety of seed mixes for different ecoregions. An expert can help you design a mix that’s even more specific to your needs.
- Ernst Seed Pollinator mixes with or without grasses. Also will help you with a custom mix.
- Florida Wildflowers Growers Cooperative Seed packets of many perennial flowers and grasses, and some bulk mixes.
- Wannamaker Seeds Wildflower cover crops for agricultural land.
- Monarch Watch Milkweed Market Order flats of plugs, request free milkweed for school or non-profit projects, or donate seeds from your plants to be used in restoration projects.
- Request a free Asclepias tuberosa seed packet, from the SCWF. Starting them indoors will give you plenty of milkweed plants for your garden.