Boomtown for butterflies: Have you noticed? There's a lot of feasting and fluttering going on in downtown Columbus

September 22, 2013 12:11:21 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


If ever there was a case of "build it and they will come," the Lowndes County Master Gardeners found it. What they built is a 4,000-square-foot butterfly garden at the Columbus Riverwalk. And, indeed, the winged insects have come, clad in brilliant coats of autumn amber, ultramarine and buttercup yellow. The pipevine swallowtails, eastern tigers and little skippers, the Gulf fritillaries and monarchs. Cloudless sulphurs, buckeyes, too. 


As the seasons transition, they blanket the garden, doing a delicate dance from plant to plant -- "self-propelled flowers," R.L. Heinlein once dubbed them. The close observer this month will spot hundreds of caterpillars (larvae) and cocoons (pupa or chrysalis) -- less lovely, but vividly illustrating the pre-butterfly stages of life. 


"This was Lucy's vision," said Jeff Wilson, standing on the sloping hillside above the garden at the Moore's Creek Road turn-off at the west end of Columbus' Main Street. The Mississippi State Extension Service horticulturist leads the Master Gardeners group in their volunteer efforts to make the county more beautiful. He's talking of Lucy Harpole, a dedicated butterfly gardener. 


The idea was on the drawing board for a while, but finally got underway in the spring of 2012.  


"The first priority was to pick out a spot, one suited to butterflies, with lots of sunshine (butterflies like sunshine) and with wind barriers (butterflies don't like wind)," explained Harpole, who enlisted the advice of city beautification volunteer Tjajuan Boswell. Knowing what butterflies like has been the key to success. The Riverwalk location seemed ideal and enjoyed high visibility.  


Wilson will joke that, as Harpole showed him the spot, he envisioned something like a 4-by-6-foot bed. Harpole had much bigger ideas. 




Building it 


With the valuable assistance of butterfly (and bird) authority Dianne Patterson of Columbus, the garden's design began to take shape. Wilson and a brigade of volunteers provided hours of manual labor, many of them behind tillers. Master Gardeners laid out pathways and matted beds with about 150 bags of weed-controlling leaves they had collected. 


A critical phase was selecting the host plantings. Butterflies have been known to be finicky. 


"When you figure out what butterflies you want to bring in, you just have to figure out what flowers are their favorites," said Patterson, matter-of-factly. "They're particular about the plants they want to lay their eggs on." 


After two full summers to mature, the variety of fennel, passion vine, parsley, lantana, ironweed, Turk's cap, Pride of Barbados and other plants are doing their job -- attracting and feeding a wide variety of butterflies and their voracious larvae. And make no mistake, a caterpillar's favorite hang-out is the underside of a leaf in search of food.  


"The leaves are eaten, just as they should be," smiled Mona Whitson, examining a passion vine climbing up a tall, steepled trellis her husband, Jim, built for the garden. Wind chimes at the top sang in the breeze. Orange larvae of the Gulf fritillary butterfly feasted on the remaining vittles. Whitson has been an active caretaker at the garden, one of several.  


Maintenance includes watering, dead-heading plants and pruning.  


Harpole said, "The leaves we put down have done a fabulous job of keeping out the weeds, and God has done most of the watering for us, thank goodness." When nature needs a little help, Master Gardeners access two 55-gallon barrels fitted with spigots by Brad Perkerson of Military Hardware and filled by the Columbus Fire Department.  




Take a stroll 


The project is meant for the community to enjoy, and perhaps get inspired to install smaller versions at home. With the garden mature -- and enhanced with gravel donated by Phillips Contracting Co. Inc. on the paths and a bird bath from Debbie Lawrence of Bloomers -- the MSU Extension Service and Master Gardeners hosted the first "open house" tours Sept. 14. Horticulturists were on hand to answer gardening questions. 


"We did the tours as a test run, but next year hope to bring some school groups in," said Wilson. "Our goal is to educate people." 


"And children get so excited about those caterpillars," added Harpole. "Hopefully it's putting a love of nature in them." 




Be a Master Gardener 


If you are interested in joining hands to beautify your county, the Master Gardener program would welcome you. 


In exchange for 40 hours of educational training, participants are required to return 40 hours of volunteer service within one year. The program helps county Extension offices with horticulture projects that benefit local communities.  


Lowndes County Master Gardener projects have included planting and helping maintain the herb garden at Mississippi University for Women's Culinary Arts Institute, landscaping at Lee Park and at the junction of Highways 50 and 373. Soon they will begin work on a garden at West Lowndes Elementary School. 


The next Master Gardener training sessions begin in February 2014. The fee is $85. For more information, contact the Extension office in your county. 


"Master gardeners have in common the thought of giving back and enhancing the appearance of the community," said Doris Ebner, who joined the program in 2004. Working together, she continued, helps projects get accomplished quicker. "I care about the appearance of where I live and want people visiting to know our citizens care." 


Everyone who invested time and toil in establishing the Riverwalk butterfly garden is pleased with the conspicuous fluttering traffic there this month. Butterflies should be visiting the plot up until first frost, Patterson said, although their numbers will dwindle as fall advances. She considers the garden a solid success. 


"There was this beautiful little spot, and this has made it much more interesting," the nature-lover said. 


And Harpole, whose vision started it all, added: "It worked! It's so exciting."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.