September, When Butterflies Are Free

In September, the sullen green of Gulf Coast Summer suddenly waves with purple and gold, blue and orange, wildflowers rising to meet butterflies, flowers visited by flowers.

In longleaf pine meadows, Delta prairies and coastal dunes and marshes, this fluttering tango of butterflies and blooms is as old as the season, an ancient romance rekindled each September.

The smattering of swallowtails that drifted through summer has become a confetti parade of red admirals and Gulf Coast fritillaries, monarchs and viceroys, queens and painted ladies, zebra longwings and anglewinged commas, cloudless sulfurs, buckeyes, orange dogs, ruddy daggerwings, little metalmarks and pygmy blues.

They’re searching for the wildflowers and shoots that first drew them to this September cotillion: blazing stars and golden asters, passionflowers and nettles, milkweeds, willows, sennas and saltwort, wild sunflowers and false foxgloves, hackberries, figs, pawpaws, vanilla leaf and toothache tree.

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You’ll catch your breath to see so many flowers and butterflies all at once in our native meadows, though you’ll hardly catch a glimpse of either in our gardens.

These days, butterflies are big business. We manufacture and sell butterflies and butterfly plants like they’re canned sardines on the grocery store shelf. We have taught our children that butterflies are trucked in by UPS, cocooned in neat little boxes delivered straight to your door. If we want to enjoy them, we visit them in elaborate climate-controlled enclosures where factory-raised fliers are brought in continuously to replenish the doomed inmates.

But on the Gulf Coast in September, butterflies are free. Or at least they ought to be.

To enjoy them in the wild, you simply need to visit – and help preserve – the native wildflower meadows and forests that have attracted so many butterflies to coastal Alabama for so many millennia.

Of course, you won’t see butterflies in the pastures and fields that have been mowed like golf courses. And you won’t find many in the unnaturally thick and dark second-growth forests now common along the coast. The wildflowers that attract so many September butterflies have no standing in those places.

Where you will find tens of thousands in September is in the open light of native longleaf or slash pine forests or in nearly treeless marshes and wet prairies – the places where wildflowers have enough light to erupt into glorious bloom and butterflies can warm their wings in the autumn sun.

At Splinter Hill bog in north County or in the restored longleaf forest at Mobile Botanical Gardens, the purple haze of vanilla leaf and blazing star invite butterflies to a nectar feast. On the shell mounds of Grand Bay marsh in south Mobile County, the orange petals trembling the saltbush are a thousand wings, monarchs and fritillaries gathering for a last push along the Gulf.

You might also find a few flitting through your yard, perhaps by accident or because they happen to have discovered a plant that reminds them of wildflower meadows they once knew.

Blazing stars under the longleaf palm attract a myriad of butterflies this time of year.

Photo by Bill FInch

Real Butterfly Plants

There’s always someone willing to sell one plant or another guaranteed to attract butterflies. Some of them may well do that. But during the butterfly marketing boom of the past couple of decades, unscrupulous growers with plants they were desperate to sell learned they could get them out the door faster if they could somehow attach butterfly to the name. Quite a few of the most popular – like buddleia, the so-called butterfly bush – barely survive on the Gulf Coast and don’t bloom during our peak season, so it’s hard to tell whether they really attract butterflies or not.

If you want to celebrate the mass meeting of wildflowers and butterflies we were once famous for, avoid the mass-marketed “butterfly plants” and look for those that have for thousands of years colored our Gulf Coast autumns.

Some, like blazing stars (Liatris species), are well known all across North America. A few, like the maypop passionflower, pretty much put the Gulf into Gulf fritillary. The abundance of these passionflowers in the Deep South (and their relative scarcity in northern states) helps explain why the fritillary, one of North America’s most beautiful butterflies is primarily at home along the Gulf Coast.

Don’t be surprised if some of the best butterfly plants are ones that you haven’t heard of before and that aren’t particularly showy. I didn’t know much about false nettle, or bog hemp (Boehmeria cylindrica), until I accidentally introduced it into my garden a number of years ago. The flowers are insignificant. Yet it seems no red admiral, question mark butterfly or comma anglewing worthy of its painted wings can pass up those mounds of pleasantly pleated leaves, which their caterpillars find especially delicious.

Seeing all these butterflies circulating around my yard, I used to wonder why butterflies weren’t celebrated each September the way azaleas are in March. The Mobile Botanical Gardens has taken a significant step towards rectifying that. During September, Butterfly Month, incoming butterflies will be greeted around the newly installed Bruce Larsen butterfly sculpture, a giant that waves its iron wings over the garden with surprising delicacy.

And on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 21, I’ll be one of the guides during the Botanical Gardens’ special seminar on Butterfly Gardening for the Gulf Coast. Participants will explore the property’s wildflower meadows to find where butterflies are most at home in this area. Then, there will be help with envisioning your personal garden, one that makes full use of the Gulf Coast plants that first brought these beautiful specimen to the ball. 

Bloom of the month: Spider Lilies

Gulf Coast Almanac

Signs of the Season
Day by day, nights are shorter, night by night, breezes cooler. Each storm of Hurricane Summer brings the promise of fall. Butterflies flock to the coast as the great season of autumn wildflowers begins, with sprays, domes and plumes of lavender, purple and royal blue.

Yes, it’s finally time for all those cool season flowers and vegetables you’ve been missing. Replant petunias and marigolds, sow lettuce, kale, nasturtiums, and plant winter herbs — sage, savory, thyme, parsley and cilantro — that thrive in our fall and winter gardens.

I bet more lawns and gardens are lost to drought in September than in any other month. No need to water when it rains, but if you haven’t seen precipitation in the past seven to 10 days, water well.

Ripe for Picking
Don’t bother with second-rate apples and pears. We wait all year for Japanese persimmons, a Gulf Coast delicacy. Use a spoon to eat these softball-sized desserts, and relish every bite.

After summer rains, your azaleas look like they just got out of bed. Don’t prune the bush; you’ll lose all your blooms. Instead, simply trim the bush’s few “wild hairs” – those lanky limbs that stick above the rest. Your azaleas will look clean, and you’ll never miss the flowers.

Bloom of the Month
Spider lilies know the seasons are changing. The red spider lilies announce September. But, look for other old Gulf Coast lycoris lilies. Peachy-colored hybrids once bloomed wildly beside Malbis Plantation, and golden-colored hurricane lilies will be showing by the end of the month.

Sept. 20: Herbs from A to Z

Mobile Botanical Gardens • 5151 Museum Dr. 604-6866

9 a.m. – noon. Presented by the Gulf Coast Herb Society and Mobile Botanical Gardens. Get advice on growing your own. Hard-to-find herbs will be available as well.

Sept. 21: Butterflies and Wildflowers

Mobile Botanical Gardens • 5151 Museum Dr. 604-6866

Finch lectures on the seasonal favorites.

Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening and the environment for more than two decades. Talk to him every Sunday morning from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.

Text by Bill Finch

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