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Do butterflies like succulents

Do Butterflies like Succulents?

My interest in butterflies for our gardens is strong, with the compulsion to have written several articles on this in recent years. I’m starting this one by referencing a great full-page gardening article by Megan Backhouse titled, ‘Mission to Feed Hungry Caterpillars’ in ‘The Age’ June 13th 2015. The article also quoted another saying that, “Architectural gardens with succulents … “don’t attract butterflies.” Also that, “In terms of welcoming bugs and butterflies into our gardens, Australians are not quite there yet.”

The authorative comment that succulents do not attract butterflies is a pertinent one. Presumably scientific literature generally does not record, but one or two succulents, if any, that are attractive to butterflies. I have since checked a few of my butterfly plant lists to find the succulent Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ as a classic that is fairly well known around the world. My compulsion to write now is based on a gradual accumulation of literature mostly by professionals, who list plants that they recommend to use in the garden to attract butterflies. A second brief example was encountered at the 2015 Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show where university students created display gardens for the public from which to view and learn. One such garden had a planting theme of only butterfly-attracting plants. Accompanying the impressive display were leaflets and brochures for the public to take home.

 

The plant brochure (above) had many plants listed yet only the native Carpobrotus (Pigface) is listed as representative of succulent plants. Importantly I need to clarify that I grow many species of Carpobrotus and have done so for over a decade and I barely recall a butterfly seen on any of the Carpobrotus flowers. Ironically a stroll through the rest of the showgrounds featured Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and several other Sedum cultivars, on sales stalls and in permanent garden bed displays. This demonstrated that the Sedum was popular with the public and landscapers and was at its seasonal peak during the show. Imagine showcasing a butterfly specific garden and not including this icon.

Simple research would reveal that this highly prized Sedum, is a proven and significant butterfly attracter worldwide. Why could it possibly have been left off the list at the flower show? When I saw the list I dismissed the glaring problem.

But reading Megan Backhouse’s article in ‘The Age’ I saw a possible connection in the quotation that for some reason overlooked this sedum and its reputation. So with two examples clearly excluding succulents, or relevant ones, lovers of these plants could be disappointed. I am curious as to how or why this happens, even in scientific circles and what I can contribute to change things. Perhaps a PHD student out there could do some new research in this area. I would love to be involved in any research that adds to our understanding and appreciation of both butterflies and succulents that can attract them to our gardens.

Worldwide, sedums (often also called Stonecrops) are a well-recognised large genus of mostly common and easy to grow succulent plants. For several decades, many of the common species have been transferred to new or different genera, hence also have new names. Notably Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ is still a name widely used and recognised; since 1977 it has been correctly called Hylotelephium herbstfreude. It is an infertile hybrid between Hylotelephium telephium and H. spectabile and while the cultivar name Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ is widely still used in English speaking countries, it is incorrect. Unfortunately the old name still persists and much of the problem here lies with the difficulty in adopting the new, longer, non-English correct version. For the benefit of the reader, I, like many in the horticultural media, have used the old name ‘Sedum Autumn Joy’ up until now, but no further. However all plant labels, at garden shows and nurseries should state the correct, current or most valid name for identification and educational purposes.

Other succulent plants that were once regarded as sedums have also been recorded on a few butterfly friendly lists. Most of these have been moved to the genus Petrosedum (in 1984) and Phedimus (in 2005), therefore concluding that using the name sedums to represent butterfly attracting succulents is wrong, due to entrenched recycling of scant, out of date historical documentation. Therefore, it would be appropriate to list most species within the genera Hylotelephium, Petrosedum and Phedimus for attracting butterflies. At the same time, it may be of benefit to also reference with this list, the closely related remaining members of the genus Sedum that may not attract butterflies, until research shows otherwise. Probably, it can be automatically assumed that most TRUE sedums attract butterflies, when in fact the opposite may be true.

A quick browse through my personal photographic library reveals that species in the genera Aptenia, Calandrinia, Crassula, Disphyma, Lampranthus, Plectranthus, Portulaca, Sarcostemma and Senecio have butterflies attend their flowers. Wouldn’t it be good if someone were to do some thorough research, as now I am certain that many more succulents will come to light as being worthwhile in a butterfly-attracting garden.


Gardeners worldwide seem to be showing an interest in information to improve their gardening experiences. Learning to provide for the general well-being of butterflies can lead to a greater enjoyment for the gardener and benefit to the natural world as a whole.

 

Extra items

  1. Each of the butterflies and moths shown in this article were clearly photographed on succulents. There is minimal evidence as to what each succulent might be, as I’m keeping this for a possible future article on this subject. In it there will hopefully be a list of named butterflies, moths and other insects that benefit from our succulent plants, as well as matching plant lists, that gardeners may find useful.

  2. Hylotelephium herbstfreude does not offer pollen to bees as the flowers are sterile, by not having any male parts. Yet bees and butterflies find the flower’s nectar highly attractive, but only for a limited number of days each year. I have since found a number of succulents that attract butterflies for up to 4 months of the year for nectar, which might be of interest to researchers and gardeners. But that is not going to be revealed here until it is scrutinised thoroughly by science.

  3. Soon I hope to have established some information about Australian native succulents have I found that can contribute to these plant lists?

  4. Finally one last point, I also have found yet another succulent that not only attracts the butterflies to the flowers for nectar, but also provides food for their larvae. Once again not to be revealed here until a future research.

Botanical nomenclature References:

  • The 506 page printed encyclopaedia: Eggli, U. (Ed). (2003). Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants Crassulaceae. Published by Springer GERM.


  • The definitive and most up to date website on Crassulaceae - International Crassulaceae Network: http://www.crassulaceae.ch/de/home