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Northeast Gardening: Plants for Pollinators

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Plant a juice bar for butterflies. Lowe's Northeast gardening expert Irene Virag tells you how to woo winged pollinators.

 An Eastern tiger swallowtail finds sweet nectar in the scented bloom of a lily.
 A silver-spotted skipper visits the blue salvia in Irene Virag�����s garden.

As Elton John sings, "Butterflies are free to fly, fly away..." But if you're a gardener, don't worry. Serve the right refreshments and they'll be back.

And you want them back. It's not just because they're beautiful - although of course they are. An Eastern tiger swallowtail sipping nectar from a pink lily, or a silver-spotted skipper flitting among the blue salvia are among nature's loveliest vignettes. Or a monarch butterfly on a Buddleia - that is indeed a royal visit.

 A bee finds nectar and pollen on a flowering allium.

But what's more important is that, like bees and hummingbirds, butterflies are pollinators. They help plants get it on by carrying pollen from the male anther of one flower to the female stigma of another flower. It's true that the wind gets into the act sometimes, but most often insects and other creatures deliver the goods.

So here's the buzz on how to lure pollinators to your garden:

Butterflies like to get juiced. Turn your garden into an organic juice bar filled with plants that offer lots of sweet, sugary nectar to keep them pumped with energy-producing carbohydrates. Also these winged visitors need energy. The male spends a lot of time looking for mates, and the females search for plants that make good sites for laying eggs.

Butterflies can view the world all around them without turning their heads and even detect the spectrum's ultraviolet end, helping locate patterns on petals that indicate where nectar is stored. And butterflies have a keen sense of smell. If you're planting a butterfly garden, scents make sense, as do bright colors such as red, orange, yellow and purple.

Verbena bonariensis, a self-sowing tender perennial in our region, is a magnet for thirsty skippers.

Bee balm, black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, tithonia, forget-get-me-not, aster and zinnia are excellent lures for pollinators, as are lilac, liatris, lantana, purple coneflower and penta. Some butterflies even have favorite snacks. Monarchs guzzle milkweed, swallowtails sip thistle, and clouded sulphurs crave clover.

Pick a site for your butterfly garden that offers plenty of sunshine, and shelter from gusty winds. And provide a water source - even a shallow puddle, where these delicate beauties can find dissolved minerals and other necessary nutrients. It also helps if you avoid using pesticides. Besides, natural predators usually keep larvae under control.

It's not easy being a caterpillar. In fact it's not a bad idea to provide some nibbles for the newborns: dill, parsley, Queen Anne's lace and fennel for swallowtails; milkweeds for monarchs; burdocks for painted ladies; violets and pansies for fritillaries and spring azures; and willows for mourning cloaks.

I'd love to hear how you keep these "flying flowers" - as Robert Frost called them - fluttering back to your garden.