When we first planted on our property, we chose plants that would attract butterflies. We wanted our children to be able to go outside and explore nature the way we did as children living in Ohio. We chose plants that provided nectar, as well as and the host plants of butterflies. Host plants are those where butterflies can lay their eggs and their young can eat from that same plant after hatching.
One fun addition to our butterfly garden was Bronze Fennel. It grows tall (3-5′) and its bronze, feathery leaves make a beautiful backdrop to any herb or flower garden. They wave gracefully in the warm summer wind. If you rub the leaves, they exude that well-known anise (licorice) aroma of fennel. Though you can cook with the leaves, this plant does not grow from the bulb you recognize in the produce market.
But, the purpose of this plant is actually to host the life-cycle of the Easter Black Swallowtail – Papilo polyxenes. Though these butterflies rely on other nectar producing plants in the garden for their food, they depend on herbs such as parsley, dill, fennel and common rue as a nursery for their eggs. Their baby caterpillars (Lepidoptera) eat the leaves of these plants until they grow to maturity. At that point, they will create a chrysalis. There they will stay until it is time to hatch.
They will emerge, dry their wings, then go into the garden to find those nectar-giving plants. And when it is time to lay their eggs, they will find a host plant and begin their cycle again.
It is great fun for the whole family to go out and examine our Bronze Fennel to see which stages of Easter Black Swallowtail’s life cycle we can find. It is the one of the key ingredients in our herb garden for attracting this beautiful butterfly to our wildlife habitat for our pleasure and as a service to the environment.
I hope you will consider adding Bronze Fennel, parsley, dill, and/or common rue to your herb or flower garden this year. You, too, will be rewarded by its wonderful residents.