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Planting for Tigers

A Purple Joe-pye, Eutrochium purpureum, towers over lesser plants in southern Ohio's Shawnee State Forest. Even casual watchers of roadside wildflowers notice these behemoths, which can tower up to seven feet or more in height. Another species in this neck of the weeds, the Hollow-stemmed Joe-pye, E. fistulosum, is even more robust.

The Joe-pyes' big dome-shaped inflorescences are stocked with scores of flowers, and sweet their nectar must be. As I slowly cruised a back lane through Shawnee towards dusk last Saturday, I was struck by the sheer numbers of swallowtail butterflies working the Joe-pyes. Some giant plants had four, five, even six of the big showy butterflies simultaneously working the blossoms. To the extent that butterflies squabble, there was much combativeness in evidence as the swallowtails jockeyed for position.

A pair of male Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Papilio glaucus, tap the sweetness of a Joe-pye. If there is a swallowtail anywhere in the neighborhood, and you've got some Joe-pye handy, they're sure to find you (or at least your plants).

I finally stopped the car by a forest glen loaded with flowering Joe-pye, and was dumbstruck by dozens of swallowtails wafting about, flitting from Joe-pye to Joe-pye. Mostly they were Tigers, which seem to have a special fondness for the plants, but there were also a number of Spicebush Swallowtails mixed in. Photo ops were numerous and irresistible, and I was reminded just how addictive these plants are for the fluttery set.

This male swallowtail is nearly fresh as can be, but he's already missing a good chunk of his tail. Bird attack, possibly. I would imagine plundering the nectar of Jack-in-the-beanstalk sized Joe-pyes carries a bit of risk. Brightly colored conspicuous butterflies stick out like sore thumbs, and any would-be predator might be quite tempted to make a go at one.

There are three Joe-pyes native to Ohio: the two aforementioned species, and a shorter one that is equally tasty to butterflies, the Spotted Joe-pye, Eutrochium maculatum. Fortunately, some wise and far-seeing nurserymen have tamed these Joe-pyes and made them available to the homeowner. I would highly recommend sticking some in your yardscape. Not only are they going to one-up any of your neighbor's botanical fare in the cool department, you'll also draw in all of the butterflies.

As more nurseries see the light and increase their stock of natives, interesting and valuable species such as Joe-pye is becoming easier to find. Following are three topnotch Ohio nurseries that carry at least one Joe-pye species (and many other natives):

Scioto Gardens (Delaware)

Ohio Prairie Nursery (Hiram)

Naturally Native Nursery (Bowling Green)


Anonymous said…
How can you tell it is a male tiger swallowtail? Have you seen many monarchs this summer? I have only seen a couple, although, the one female must have laid all of her eggs on the milkweed in my flower bed because I have over forty caterpillars right now.
Jim McCormac said…
Females have conspicuous blue patches on the hind wings. Monarchs are at record lows - I've seen maybe four, and no one else I know has seen many, either!

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