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Free as a Butterfly

I only ask to be free.  The butterflies are free.  - Mr. Stackpole, in Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House”

When I used to work near the Jersey City waterfront, there were a lot of abandoned, weedy fields. When I first started working in the area, in a former warehouse converted to an office, many of the fields along the water were slowly being filled with small office buildings. But there were fields away from the waterfront, off the beaten track, that were open and ignored because weeds are usually not very interesting to most people.

dark swallowtailI am not like most people. I like to look for birds and I discovered, in my walks around the area, that weeds suddenly became very interesting when they flowered and then went to seed.

When I would pass these open lots in Jersey City, there would be Queen Anne’s lace, thistle, goldenrod and a host of other wild plants. The flowers drew bees, wasps, yellow-jackets and butterflies. When the seeds came, so did the birds, many on their way south in the fall. Among those I’ve seen in weedy fields were goldfinches, northern parula, winter wren, song sparrows and white-throated sparrows.

But after September 11, 2001, things changed for Jersey City in a hurry. People were already moving  there because the rents were lower than in Manhattan or Hoboken. Many companies wanted to get out of lower Manhattan. Larger office buildings started going up. Then those off-the-beaten track areas got tracks - a light rail. Even after many companies decided they wanted to stay in New York after all, other builders started putting in apartment towers. The fields were paved over. Most of these ugly glass boxes put up by such familiar names as Hovnanian and Trump were pretty sterile, including the dull plantings around them. 

No more interesting birds or butterflies.

A lot of suburban areas are like this, too. It is hard work to plant and maintain flowers, even the perennials that come back every year. I know this firsthand. I find flowering plants interesting. My rose of sharons are now flowering and covered with bees. The butterfly bush I put in several years ago lives up to its name. Most people, I’ve found, prefer to put in shrubs that don’t need much care or water just to have something in front of the house. Rarely do I see these shrubs combined in such a way to contrast colors and heights and textures to make them interesting.

For color the “really creative” will have a hanging basket or pot of something or perhaps plant marigolds in the sun, impatiens in the shade.

Of course, there is another reason besides laziness or apathy why people may be avoiding bothering with flowers – the deer that have multiplied and overrun many suburban areas, something else I know firsthand. Why put something nice in when it’ll get eaten? The price I pay for my flowers is having to keep them behind deer netting for their own protection.tiger swallowtail

Open fields of native plants and weeds don’t seem to have this problem. The deer that typically destroy store-bought tulips in a suburban yard seem to leave a field of native goldenrod or joe-pye weed alone. I would love to have an area like this, free of fences, a place where wildflowers and weeds, even the unsightly ones, are allowed to grow. 

This is not always easy for most people to see as more of these wild areas are built over for housing and offices or uprooted for power lines. Unless you create one yourself, you have to look hard for these natural areas or go to one of the places created with the intent of educating people and showing them how flora and fauna interact.

These educational nature centers or parks, I’ve found, sometimes will set aside special areas and label them “butterfly gardens.”

I thought Scherman Hoffman had such a garden. I’ve seen this area for years. You have too – it’s the hill above a stone retaining wall bordering the handicapped parking spots in the upper parking lot. (At one time this was the only parking lot, across from what is now the old education center and bookstore.)

When I asked teaching naturalist Dorothy Smullen about the “butterfly garden” she had no idea what I was talking about.  “News to me,” is how she put it.

I quickly learned there is no official "butterfly garden," even though when I was recently there to take pictures the hill was full of butterfly bush, brown-eyed susans, Queen Anne’s lace, bee balm, purple coneflower, goldenrod and joe-pye weed, and these were covered with several types of butterflies, plus bees and smaller insects. 

As noted, I have many of the same plants in my garden because they are native, they’re pretty and they don’t need a lot of water to survive New Jersey summers. The bees and butterflies are a bonus. 

“We have been simply removing the non-native invasive plants and planting native plants within the deer fence to support all our native wildlife,” teaching naturalist Stephanie Punnett told me. 

According to director Mike Anderson, the garden was planted years ago, around 1997, and like most flower gardens - I know this firsthand - the deer ate most of it within a year. Queen Anne

Then Scherman Hoffman put up its big deer fence, with the special obstacle on the driveway (a car can get over it but not a deer), in 1999. Wild plants started growing back, with help from volunteers until 2006. New seeds were planted in 2008.

I wish I could have this kind of fence around my property.

Even if those parking their cars below don’t look up the hill, the butterflies and bees appreciate the effort. These are the most visible visitors but there are others, according to Stephanie, including yellow crab spiders, plant bugs and wasps. (If you look closely you can see some of these small visitors on this Queen Anne’s lace, a common roadside plant that is a member of the carrot family.)

Some of the butterflies lately visiting the butterfly bush and wildflowers include tiger swallowtail, black swallowtail, painted lady, great spangled fritillary, silver spotted skipper and monarch, according to Stephanie.

There’s also been one of my favorites, the hummingbird moth, which flies by day (most moths fly at night) and whose coloring and appearance does make it look like a hummingbird.

A butterfly floating on the breeze is fascinating to watch. It will light on a flower and hang on for dear life when the wind picks up. When it is time to head south for the winter it will fly over water, mountains and forests with single-minded purpose. One of the most amazing sights I’ve seen was the monarch butterfly heading south over the Gulf of Maine as my boat was heading north to the Maine coast one September trip after a visit to Monhegan Island. Monarchs winter in Mexico – that’s a long way from Maine.

As Scherman Hoffman proves, you don’t have to have a “butterfly garden” to host butterflies or bees. Any flowering plant will do. Put in the right flowers - or leave the right weeds alone - and you might have some colorful visitors, too.

 bee

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