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Dear Friend and Gardener

Can Roses Kill?

Knock Out Double Red Rose

Can roses, Knock Out Roses kill butterflies? That is the question asked by a reader in Colrain. Knock Outs are a fairly new hybrid family of roses bred to be disease and insect resistant.

I had never heard that Knock-Outs had this potential for killing butterflies  so I set out to do some research. I was quickly reminded that butterflies are not much interested in roses of any sort because they supply nothing they need, not a site for their eggs, food for their larvae (caterpillars), a place for their chrysalis or nectar.

Those of us who wish to attract butterflies to our gardens, and hummingbirds who like many of the same flowers, need to keep the needs of these lovely flowers of the air in mind.

Butterfly gardens have become popular and I think this is because we have all become more sensitive to the interconnectedness of all things. Butterflies and other living creatures depend on us with gardens, even small gardens, to help provide them with the necessaries of life. One way to begin is by not using any pesticides in our gardens. It is possible that the idea of poisonous Knock-Outs arose because Knock-Outs have been bred to be insect resistant, but the insects in question are aphids in particular, not insects in general.

Then we can come up with a list of plants native to our area that support butterflies. One of my favorite books, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens by Douglas Tallamy, has an excellent appendix listing host plants for butterflies and showy moths. He organizes his list connecting host plants required by specific butterflies for laying their eggs and providing their larvae with the proper food. I was surprised by the number of trees that are important to butterflies. In our region dogwwods, birches, maples, poplars, willows, cherries, white pine, oaks, basswood, and shrubs like viburnams and blueberries, are all common in the general landscape as well as our gardens.

Vines like grapes and Virginia creeper also support butterflies. Grasses, herbs and even weeds also have their place. We all know that Monarch butterflies need milkweed but I didn’t know that jewelweed is also an important host plant. How many of us have had our dill and parsley decimated by swallowtail caterpillars? I may grind my teeth, but I am happy to make that sacrifice.

It is flowers for nectar that people usually think about when they think of creating a butterfly garden. We should remember that butterflies are attracted to red, pink, purple and yellow flowers, often with a trumpet form. When I look at my own ornamental plantings I count bee balm, garden phlox, purple coneflowers (Echninacea), coral bells, foxglove, lantana, New England aster, zinnias, agastache (hyssop) violets, and sedums as butterfly plants. I bought butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) seeds, but I haven’t quite managed to get them planted yet.

We used to have clouds of Monarchs visit us settling on what has become a field of mint. I never realized that mint was an important nectar plant, but the proof was right in front of our eyes when hundreds of Monarchs flitted around the field. Unfortunately, the mint thrives, but the past two years have brought us only small numbers of Monarchs. This does have me worried.

If we are trying to attract butterflies to our domestic landscape there are other simple things we can do besides provide the plants they need. Butterflies like the sun, and they get tired. They need to have landing places where they can open their wings and rest. All it takes is a clear space and a few flat basking stones to act as their landing field.

Like any living creature, butterflies need water. A puddling space is easy to set up. A small bird bath or any shallow container that can be filled with very wet sand or mud (and it must be kept wet) will provide drinking water for butterflies. A container with a fairly broad diameter will make it easier for the butterfly to find it – maybe near the basking stone.

Even if you don’t have a flower garden you can attract butterflies by setting out a plate of cut up ripe or rotting fruit. You will also attract other insects like wasps, but the butterflies won’t care. You will probably want to locate such an attraction where you will not be bothered by those freeloaders. The fruit should be kept moist. You can use water, of course, but a slurp or two of beer will also do the job nicely.

Knock Outs Double Red

Between the Rows   June 24, 2012

4 comments to Can Roses Kill?

  • I had never heard this about Knock-out roses; I certainly hope it isn’t true! A very informative post, Pat; I know many of the nectar flowers that butterflies like and have most of these planted in my garden. But I didn’t realize the trees and shrubs you mentioned were also necessary for butterflies. And thanks for the reminder about the stones and water–I need to add more of both in my garden, especially the water in this heat.

  • Pat

    Rose – It was a great relief to me to know that butterflies do not bother with any roses at all. I have more milkweed this year and I have left it all – in hopes of visiting Monarchs.

  • Worrying to think this might be a problem but it sounds like its not going to adversely affect the butterflies (or flutterbys as I always called them as a child)!

  • Pat

    Mark and GAz – No flutterbies will be harmed.

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