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Fluttering Flowers of Fall

September 10, 2012

As I worked in my yard last weekend, a spicebush butterfly was my constant companion.   While I stooped to pull weeds, the tiny creature fluttered past, time and time again.  When I stood to stretch, my beautiful visitor danced in circles close by me.  I felt unusually blessed by its presence.

Pausing from my labors, I marveled at the delicate black butterfly, marked with iridescent blue.  Most gardeners in these parts know that by early fall precious few blooms remain on our tired summer plants. To be graced by such a lovely visitor to our garden deserves stopping for a moment.

I mopped perspiration from my face with an old, faded bandana and tossed it aside as I continued working.  Moments later I noticed the butterfly had perched on the flower-patterned rag as if sipping nectar.  I realized that my own salty sweat had attracted the insect.

During spring break several years ago, two of our sons and I hiked a portion of the Foothills Trail together.  On the second day of our backpacking trip, the pedestrian trail crossed an equestrian trail.  The pungent aroma of horses filled the air.  A hundred or more bright yellow swallowtail butterflies swirled about along the path.  As we passed among the fluttering swarm, we noticed the main attraction just off to the side – a pile of fresh horse manure.

As much as I enjoy butterflies, I prefer the thought that brightly colored flowers, rather than human sweat or horse manure, lure these beauties.

The work of creating a garden spot that attracts these gorgeous flying creatures is well worth the effort, though it does require some planning. Since these beautiful insects are drawn to flowering plants that provide an enticing feast, I have included in our garden plants known to attract an array of butterflies.

Consider planting in your own yard some of their summertime favorites: ageratum, aster, butterfly bush, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, catmint, coneflower, coreopsis, cosmos, goldenrods, honeysuckle, hyssop, lantana, mallow, marigold, phlox, salvia, sedum, verbena, yarrow, and zinnia. Planting milkweed, bronze fennel, and Joe-Pye weed, preferred items on the buffet, will invite butterflies during the fall months.

The plant that anchors one corner of our garden is a lantana, covered with pink, yellow, and orange composite flowers.  Its vibrant colors provide an eye-catching display in the autumn garden.  One of the beauties of the lantana is that it offers a place for butterflies to congregate.

One sunny afternoon last week, I pulled into our driveway and paused to look at the lantana.  No fewer than thirty butterflies were on, above, and around the bush, including several varieties such as the majestic monarchs, some deep orange fritillaries, and an American painted lady.  The lantana, adorned with a bevy of these fluttering guests, made quite a stunning display.

In our neck of the woods September and October are peak months for butterflies. As they prepare to migrate, these winged insects drink deeply from the flowers.  The nectar provides the energy they will need to fly south for the winter.  Many of the guests now dancing among the flowers in Upstate gardens will spend the winter months in the warmer climate of Central American countries.

Near the back of my property, I have a small patch of wild flowers. The orange blossoms of the milkweed plant attract monarch butterflies, which lay their eggs on the leaves.  Monarch caterpillars are almost as beautiful as the butterfly itself.  After a time of devouring the leaves of the milkweed plant, the caterpillars hang upside down and spin a silken case in which they are enfolded. In this chrysalis stage, they resemble a dead leaf. Then the moment comes to emerge from their cocoon.  Spreading their newly formed wings, the transformed creatures take to the air.

This metamorphosis has made butterflies a symbol for new life.  Often released at weddings, just as the groom and bride are pronounced husband and wife, butterflies mark the beginning of the couple’s new life together.

Early Christians saw in the butterfly an apt symbol for the resurrection.

I vividly remember the funeral service for a lady who loved butterflies.  She had decorated her mountain home with a butterfly theme and tended a special garden in her backyard designed to attract her flying flowers.

After her death following an extended illness, it was only natural to emphasize her enjoyment of butterflies. Friends and family members sent flower arrangements adorned with silk butterflies.

The crowning touch to her service came as a complete surprise.  As I finished reading the Scripture at the cemetery, a monarch fluttered into the funeral tent and landed on the Bible I held in my hands.  The vibrant orange and black creature perched like a bookmark between the opened pages of Scripture.  For a few silent moments we marveled in amazement at the winged visitor.

There is no telling what will attract a butterfly.

I sat in the backyard of an older man who, for several years, had cultivated a butterfly garden. The afternoon offered a gentle breeze and warm sunshine. The man was dying of cancer.

The garden was alive with flying flowers. We sat in silence for a time as a kaleidoscope of spicebush, swallowtail, monarch, buckeye, and mourning cloak butterflies all sipped nectar from the array of blooms.

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” I agreed.

Following a long pause I added, “You know the Church has long regarded the butterfly as a symbol of resurrection.”

After a few thoughtful moments of reflection, he agreed, “No wonder I enjoy them so much.”


Kirk H. Neely
© September 2012



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