Chapter 5. Grass Selection and Butterfly Pairings

5.2 Wildflower and Grass Pairings

As discussed in Chapter 2, native grasses benefit butterflies and moths during their larval stage. During this stage, these insects are small and earthbound, and so are not very mobile. Lepidoptera do most of their traveling during their adult stage, when they can fly and traverse longer distances. To attract Lepidoptera to a planting, grasses should be paired with wildflowers that provide food for their adult stage.

There is a lot of information available on how to attract pollinators using floral resources. However, there is less information out there about grass skippers and other grass-feeding species. Generally, grass skipper butterflies feed on the nectar of flowers that grow in the same type of habitat where their host grasses grow, and that bloom during their butterfly life span. They seem to prefer composites and other flowers with easily available nectar, but as a group are moderately opportunistic in their choices for nectar. Many grass skipper species have short life spans as butterflies, sometimes only 35 weeks. They can only use the flowers that are blooming during the window of time that they are flying. Different species emerge as butterflies at different times during the spring and summer season, taking advantage of different floral resources.

Complete Life Cycle Table

Plains branded skipper. Photo by Bryan Reynolds.
Plains branded skipper. Photo by Bryan Reynolds.

To benefit Lepidoptera during their whole life cycle, plant both the nectar flowers for the adult stage and the host plants for the larval stage. The following table list combinations of nectar flowers and grasses that serve Lepidoptera species during both their butterfly and larvae life stages.This list was compiled by searching the literature (guidebooks and scientific journal articles) and taking note of adult nectar plants and larval food plants.

 

 

GRASS + FLOWER = LEPIDOPTERA
big bluestem bird’s-foot violet cobweb skipper
little bluestem Carolina larkspur cobweb skipper
big bluestem wild hyacinth cobweb skipper, dusted skipper
little bluestem wild strawberry cobweb skipper, dusted skipper
switchgrass viburnum spp. pepper and salt skipper
sideoats grama penstemon spp. hilltop little skipper
switchgrass dogbane tawny-edge skipper
switchgrass purple coneflower tawny-edge skipper
big bluestem common milkweed Delaware skipper, Ottoe skipper
big bluestem pickerelweed Delaware skipper
switchgrass swamp milkweed Delaware skipper
big bluestem ox-eye Dakota skipper, arogos skipper
prairie dropseed black-eyed Susans Dakota skipper, Poweshik skipperling
little bluestem purple coneflower Dakota skipper, arogos skipper, Poweshik skipperling, Ottoe skipper
prairie dropseed leadplant Ottoe skipper
lake sedge Joe Pye weed northern/marsh eyed brown
sideoats grama green milkweed arogos skipper, Ottoe skipper
lake sedge blue vervain broad-winged skipper
lake sedge swamp milkweed broad-winged skipper
lake sedge pickerelweed Dion skipper
lake sedge sneezeweed Dion skipper
blue grama blazing star spp. common branded skipper
blue grama goldenrod spp. common branded skipper
blue grama New England Aster Leonard’s skipper
tussock sedge swamp milkweed northern/marsh eyed brown
little bluestem New Jersey tea crossline skipper

Limitations and Possibilities of Butterfly Gardens

While the addition of native nectar flowers into human dominated landscapes has shown to be successful in providing nectar to butterflies (Vickery 1995), there is debate surrounding the efficacy of butterfly gardens as breeding habitat. There have not been any studies on whether restorations or butterfly gardens function as successful breeding habitat for grass skippers. Many of the rare species that are grassland specialists have only been known to occur on native habitat and are not suspected to travel far from their established populations. However, other species of butterflies, such as the Monarch, have shown to be able to successfully  use butterfly gardens as breeding habitat. Additional research is needed to fully understand the benefits of native landscaping in suburban and urban areas to Lepidoptera communities and rare species.  A main benefit of residential butterfly gardens may be as stepping stones between larger natural areas, where Lepidoptera can obtain nectar before continuing on to permanent habitat (Vickery 1995; Di Mauro et. al. 2007). Hall et al. (2017) suggest new thinking as we continue to learn how to best design and use our man made environments to make them livable for not only us, but our critically important natural world.

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Gardening with Native Grasses in Cold Climates by Diane M. Narem and Mary Hockenberry Meyer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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