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Saving the butterflies

Environmental columnist Frances Lamberts is taking a brief hiatus from writing. She has selected some of her favorite columns to republish. This one ran June 27, 2006.
A large, blue-black butterfly didn’t wait until after its host plant had been set into the earth. A spicebush swallowtail homed in on the shrub, whence its name derives, while still in the planter pot in which it had come from Shy Valley Farm.
At the entrance to the Jonesborough wastewater treatment plant on Britt Drive, a “butterfly garden” was being laid out that particular day and “doubtless,” to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, the butterfly “thought it meet of him” to flutter by to acknowledge the planting and show thanks for it.
We enjoy butterflies and think of them as a staple of spring and summer. Yet with the disappearance of flowering hayfields and meadows, their feeding and breeding places, many butterflies are in decline.
We can help assure their continued survival, individually and through efforts such as the Town’s, to plant nectar-producing plants.
In Jonesborough’s new natural-flora “garden,” the spicebush will have company from other swallowtail butterflies, and from sulphurs, whites and buckeye, skippers and the Monarch, hairstreaks and dusky wings and others. They will find a variety of flowers native to Tennessee, such as still grow in woods and open spaces, cardinal flower and great blue lobelia, red milkweed and mountain mint, butterfly weed and sweet Joe-Pye weed among them. There are other flowers, such as horse mint and crimson bee balm and the Tennessee coneflower which no longer are common in the “wild” and others, such as moth and common mullein, attractive to moths.
Our love of butterflies is based on more than their beauty. They are among the insects on which thousands of plants depend for pollination. Through particular shapes of flowers, scent or color, or particularly deep nectaries accessible only to a long proboscis, plants have evolved cooperative relations with their special pollinators.
The moth visiting a flower during the night distinguishes its fragrance from other flowers’ aroma mix, its own foraging efficiency thus maximized and pollen transfer for sexual reproduction of the plant thus assured.
The relations are finely tuned, the plant shedding its attractant scent output at highest levels only when its flowers are ready for pollination and their agent is active.
Thus, we see bees and butterflies tending to flowers that offer their perfume during the day and moths to those whose fragrance is strong at night.
A majority of flowering plants must have butterflies, bees, beetles or other pollinators to reproduce. Their mysterious partnerships, by the uncounted thousands, undergird the productivity of nature.
Yet the connections are fragile. One partner’s loss endangers or may doom the other, and the inter-dependence affects us all. A “welded chain of causal events,” says Dr. E. O. Wilson “leads directly to our species. If plants, including many food and forage crops, must have insects to exist, then human beings must have insects to exist.” Our urgent challenge is to reverse the dangerous trend that now sends more than hundred fellow creatures sliding to extinction each single day.
Planting a “butterfly garden” is an act of hope and help. Jonesborough should be commended for it.