The Role of Native Plants in a Backyard Habitat: Hop Tree (Ptelea Trifoliate) and the Giant Swallowtail

Reader Contribution by Shannon Mach
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Ptelea Trifoliate, photo by Shannon Mach

As my butterfly garden continues to expand, so does my vision to provide larval host plants, preferably native, to support a wide-array of butterflies and moths. Just a few years back  I knew very little about the importance of native plants, shrubs, and trees. Over time this changed and my plans grew; and in the process I created Serendipity (Facebook group). As a group, we promote learning about native plants and we inspire others to plant gardens. We recognize that wildlife is losing natural habitat at an alarming rate. Many species of moths, butterflies, and bees face the very real risk of extinction. With this in mind, Serendipity encourages others to share their space with the pollinators and to create backyard habitats. Big or small every garden matters; and mixing in native plants is especially beneficial.

Why are native plants, trees, and shrubs so important?

 Natives play a significant role in turning a typical garden into a diverse and thriving backyard habitat; an ecosystem filled with fascinating diversity. Native plants are those that occur naturally in your region; they are the ones that co-evolved with the local bees, butterflies, birds, and insects. Think of it like this: When you include natives in your garden you are providing a living support system; a home for innumerable unique creatures who need a place to eat. You are setting the table for native bees, butterflies and moths. A backyard habitat with native plants is a busy place. Caterpillars will be munching on leaves, bees will be buzzing, and feathered friends will set up shop in your backyard. Birds will build nests, raise families – and feed their young on the many insects provided by your garden. Before you know it, you will have created an amazing space complete with a natural system of checks and balances.   

Giant Swallowtail, photo by Terri Sims

For someone like me, a butterfly gardener on a mission, I am always looking for a new native plant to expand my backyard habitat; or a new butterfly to attract. The Giant Swallowtail had long topped my goal list. It is the largest butterfly in North America; a butterfly with a far-reaching range and a reputation for its stunning grace and beauty. I had planted Rue, a non-native herb and larval host for the Giant, but they stubbornly refused to visit my garden. I decided it was time to revisit my host plant options; thus began my quest to locate a Hop Tree (Ptelea Trifoliate) for my butterfly buffet. 

 Giant caterpillar, photo by Shannon Mach

This lovely tree is native throughout much of the United States, but I quickly learned that it is  all but non-existent in the local plant aisles. Current interest, and demand by butterfly gardeners, often exceeds availability of many natives. Sometimes acquiring that dream-native-plant will mean online ordering or a lengthy car trip to a native nursery, but the rewards will make the effort well-worthwhile. 

Chrysalis, Photo by Shannon Mach

Long story short, my new hop tree made the journey home from the native nursery and was planted with much anticipation. The rest as they say is butterfly history. It was like I had rolled out a swallowtail welcome mat. Within a matter of days, I spotted my first Giant. The magnificent butterfly swooped in like a kite and was gone before I could even manage to take one single photo.

Newly eclosed, photo by Shannon Mach

Over the course of the next week, I began to see Giant Swallowtails nectaring in my garden. Then it happened, I spotted a female ovipositing on the Hop Tree. It was not long before tiny caterpillars began to emerge from the lovely amber eggs clinging to the leaves. The glorious Giants became regular visitors – and best of all – caterpillars made chrysalises in my garden habitat and new butterflies eclosed to continue the life cycle. All of this was made possible by one native Hop Tree sapling planted in a backyard habitat.

Learn more about backyard habitats, butterfly gardening, ponds, and garden projects atSerendipity.

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