Northern Spicebush Flowers
It is Spicebush season in the butterfly garden. In the spring, Northern Spicebush is one of the first native shrubs to bloom. The flowers of Northern Spicebush are numerous, pale yellow, lightly fragrant, and, under the right weather conditions, can bloom for up to two weeks.
Fitting Northern Spicebush into a garden is easy. Shrubby by nature, it can be kept to a small size by cutting back the larger branches every so often. It can even be cut back to the ground, with new growth coming back as a profusion of twiggy stems. In fact, older large bushes tend to become brittle and benefit from a trim before limbs break under winter snow loads.
Northern Spicebush as a small shrub
Butterflies do not often visit Northern Spicebush flowers for nectar; other small insects, including bees and flies, primarily cross-pollinate the spring flowers. Starting in late spring or early summer, the Spicebush Swallowtail will lay eggs on the Northern Spicebush leaves. The resulting caterpillars will feast on the leaves until it is time for them to pupate.
Northern Spicebush as a small tree. Notice that older thick branches have been sawed off or broken in heavy snow.
Spicebush finishes the garden season with colorful leaves. If you happen to have both a male and female Northern Spicebush in your garden, fall will also bring on a brief display of red berries on the female Northern Spicebush. Look for the berries in late summer to early fall. They are a favorite food of many birds and mammals so they will not be left on the shrubs for very long.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Black Cherry
Many trees and shrubs offer caterpillar food and are therefore important to include in a butterfly garden if you wish to help increase butterfly populations. Of course, trees and shrubs are not always the easiest plant to fit into a garden, yard, or balcony!
Whether you are short on space or simply don’t have the interest in growing trees and shrubs, you might still want to take inventory of trees and shrubs in your area which could be important caterpillar food plants. Even if you are only able to provide nectar plants in your yard or garden, knowing the full life cycle of butterflies in your area will enrich your experience butterfly watching experience.
Spring is the best time to examine your neighborhood trees and shrubs and requires no trespassing. During the spring blooming period, it is often easy to spot a tree or shrub at a distance that might otherwise go unnoticed during the rest of the year.
Two trees that are easy to identify during their spring blooming period are Northern Spicebush and Black Cherry. While Northern Spicebush provides caterpillar food for only one butterfly, the Spicebush Swallowtail, Black Cherry is happily devoured by Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purples, and Coral Hairstreaks.
Look for Northern Spicebush with its early yellow flowers that cling closely up and down each branch and blooms early in spring. Black Cherry blooms later than Northern Spicebush. It is a tall tree with drooping white flowers that are easily seen at a distance.
One of the earliest perennial plants to emerge in the spring in my NJ butterfly garden, Golden Alexander (Zizia aura) is becoming one of my favorite plants.
Easily started from seed two years ago, Golden Alexander has multiplied (without any aggressive tendencies) and seems to be one of the very few plants that my neighborhood deer do not enjoy. Black Swallowtails use Golden Alexander as a caterpillar food plant, but to date, Black Swallowtails seem to prefer the parsley that I grow over Golden Alexander. This year, now that I have a larger number of Golden Alexander plants, I imagine that the Black Swallowtails might take some notice.
Even though Golden Alexander is waking up from a long cold winter, it will still be weeks before many of the plants in my butterfly garden reappear. One of the latest to emerge in the spring are milkweeds, often not poking through the ground until early May.
Viceroy on common buttonbush
Groups of plants have been selected and rated by NABA members as important native plants for butterfly gardening. Be sure to check NABA’s Regional Garden Guides to learn which plants are best suited for butterfly gardens in your area.
Monarch on purple coneflower
For many years, NABA has offered a set of butterfly gardening brochures written specifically for various regions of the United States. NABA is in the process of updating these brochures and converting them to regional butterfly gardening guides that will emphasize the use of native butterfly garden plants.
The entire set of regional garden guides is available on our map. The new, updated butterfly gardening guides are posted on the map, noted with a blue button, as they become available.