Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener

A stump is transformed into a butterfly haven.

From stump to butterfly haven
by Ginny Stibolt

The 2004 hurricanes damaged a sweet gum tree in the middle of our back yard and we had to have it removed. Back then it was an eyesore, but now it's a beautiful butterfly garden.

The transformation

First we cut away all the turf around the stump until we had a circle that was about six feet in diameter,  then we dumped several wheelbarrow loads of pond muck on top of the stump. (We were cleaning out the pond out front.) Then we covered the muck with a few inches of sandy soil.  The resulting mound was about two taller than the lawn. Now, four years later, I'm pretty sure the old stump has rotted by now and is providing nutrients for our butterfly island.

That first year I planted some mystery tubers that the former own had planted in with the canna lilies (Canna X generalis) on the side of the house. I finally figured out that these were hidden ginger lilies (Curcuma zedoaria). The tropical-looking ginger lily leaves are three feet tall, so they provide a backdrop to everything else that's planted there, and as you can probably see, one canna snuck in with the gingers. These big leaves die back in the winter.

I've tried several types of plants on the mound with varying degrees of success, and each year we remove a little more of the lawn so the mound is expanding.  I've also added compost and mulched the mound to keep some of the weeds at bay.  Last year the zinnias (Zinnia elegans) grew very well there and I wrote about them in an earlier article. Some soft rush (Juncus effusus) grew on one side of the mound, and I planted some perennial Maximillian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) on the top of the mound that have seeded themselves so there are now several plants.  Last year, the wild aster (Symphyotrichum spp) was a little too wild, so I've pulled out most it.  

<< Two blazing star stalks, on the left, blend in with the zinnias' colors and attract their own set of pollinators. The Maximillian sunflower on the right provides late summer height and clear, strong yellow.

This year I replanted zinnias and have added several native blazing star bulbs (Liatris spicata). I also planted some red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria), which are native to South Africa, but they haven't really taken off. Most of the plants I've purchased were chosen for their habitat value for butterflies and hummingbirds in the garden. While the soft rushes don't add much to the butterfly habitat, they volunteered along the lower edges of the mound and provide a year-round vertical structure.

A female* eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) pauses for a drink on a zinnia. Its caterpillar probably ate leaves on some nearby choke cherry trees (Prunus serotina).
Surprisingly, hummingbirds also visit the zinnias. >>

Ongoing maintenance

One reason for trying a broad selection of perennials is to have an easier and more dependable way to provide good variety for the butterflies and hummingbirds. Each year they should continue to grow without my intervention. While zinnias are easy enough to grow, each year they need to be replanted. I'd like to get to the point where all that's required is a quick mulching each year and voilą-a butterfly and hummingbird paradise.

I hope you will turn an ugly (or hard to maintain) piece of your landscape into your own butterfly habitat. I think you'll find it rewarding as we do.  My words don't do justice to the fluttering beauty on butterfly island from April to December.  

* You can tell that it's a female eastern tiger swallowtail because of the blue spots on the lower sections of the wings.  The male is yellow and black, too, but doesn't have the blue.  The female could also be mostly black with the blue areas in the same place on the wings.  This is called the dark phase and is more common here in its southern range.  Maybe some of the dark swallowtail butterflies that I thought were spicebush swallowtails were actually the dark phase of this tiger.  Hmm...  I'll have to look at some of those photos to look for the ghostly stripes hiding in the black.

(Update: Some years later, this butterfly haven became blueberry hill.)


· Tiger swallowtails:
· Butterfly gardening in Florida: 
"Florida Butterfly Gardening" by Marc C. Minno and Maria Minno published by University Press of Florida.  Click here to purchase it on Amazon.

Ginny Stibolt is a life-long gardener, a botanist, a naturalist, and a garden writer. You may contact her or read more of her articles posted on her website:

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Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener