A delightful swatch of color flitted by as we sat on our back deck on one of spring’s first warm sunny days. It was a red admiral butterfly that landed on a post just a few feet from us. It appeared to be enjoying the weather as much as we were.
We’ve since spotted many red admirals in the yard, probably because stinging nettles thrive on the north end of our property. It’s the favored plant for red admiral caterpillars, although they’ll also live on other types of nettles. That poses somewhat of a dilemma.
What is a Red Admiral Butterfly?
These colorful butterflies depend on early blooming plants like nettles.
Red Admirals are a common butterfly across much of the temperate globe. They’re found across Europe and Asia, North Africa, Hawaii, and much of North America, especially the eastern half of our continent. The larvae feed on stinging nettles, which may not be native. So, if red admirals need stinging nettles what did they eat before the plant was introduced to North America in the early days of European exploration? It’s not even certain that stinging nettles are exotic. They may have been here all along, or early butterflies may have fed on wood nettles.
We appreciate both the insect and plant here at Winding Pathways. Red admirals add color and movement to the yard, while nettles make delicious eating. It’s the first wild green we harvest each early spring.
Can You Eat Nettles?
Carefully pluck the top three leaves off.
Stinging nettles are ready to harvest early – about the time when chard, spinach, and lettuce are planted. When the nettles are just a few inches tall we pluck off the top three or four leaves. They are called stinging nettles because the plant has tiny hairlike stingers. Walk through a patch in summer wearing shorts and nettles cause instant pain. But it’s temporary and not dangerous. Another name for the plant is the “seven-minute itch.” The sting comes from histamines.
We gather young nettles without getting stung by carefully plucking just the top leaves between our thumb and forefinger and snapping them off. About 100 young nettle tops make two servings. We bring them into the kitchen, rinse them a couple of times, and steam them for just a minute or two. The sting disappears and resulting greens are delicious. Plus they pack a nutritious array of vitamins and are high in protein.
Nettle season is short. By the time the plants are eight or ten inches tall, the new leaves are getting tough. But by then we’re harvesting chard and spinach from the garden.
We’re happy to share our yard with both red admirals and nettles. Anyone with a partly shady yard with damp soil might want to start a nettle patch. Wear a pair of gloves and dig up a few and plant them in the yard. They aren’t fussy and will provide excellent table fare and a higher likelihood that the yard will be home to the colorful butterfly.
Reminiscing on some Haikus from the past. These seemed a good way to honor spring and welcome summer.
Quivering seed pods
Last year’s fruit, This year’s promise
Red buds produce life.
April ‘to Open’
Birds beckon, flowers unfold
Hope, re-birth, re-new.
Slow green shoots appear and grow.
Spring bursts in splendor.
How goes butterfly
So gaily in morning dew.
Surf booms, with great roar.
Coquinas ride waves to rest
On white, clean beaches.
Spring aerial art.
Wheeling, gliding all in sync
Spring aerial art
Banks, wheel. Dive. Glide in sync
Mountain tall, distant
Shelters small creatures that live
In harmony there.
Laughter tumbles free,
From souls to the earth.
Children, living gifts.
Begin where we are
Plain talk ease nerves.
Rolling a log.
Butterfly on flower
Joe-Pye Weed can grow to great heights and is a favorite of butterflies and other pollinators.
Carol Lampe shared these pictures and write up of her wondrous yard and the pollinator action on Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum). This is a particularly valuable fast food stop for migrating butterflies as it lasts into autumn. We have found it a bit difficult to start and then it takes off! Give it plenty of space and enjoy the butterflies.
“Here is a butterfly twofer from my flower bed. In the forefront you can see the female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sitting on a Joe-Pye Weed. There were several Swallowtails out there that day.
“Joe-Pye Weed is an herb and the butterflies really seem to like it. Native Americans, and later, white settlers, made much use of Joe-Pye Weed. Teas of the roots or tops were used as a diuretic, as well as for rheumatism, gout, fevers, diarrhea, respiratory disorders, and even impotence. Modern science has not confirmed their efficacy.
Sipping nectar on Joe-Pye Weed.
“Tucked toward the back is a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta). The males are territorial and many times can be found in the same location day to day.”
Thanks, Carol, for sharing your wondrous yard with Winding Pathways.
One of our favorite wildflowers at Winding Pathways is the purple coneflower. It’s named for petals that radiate backward in a cone shape. The genus name Echinacea means “hedgehog” in Greek and derives from the prickly seed head that forms in late summer and persists into winter.
Native to woods’ edges and clearings throughout Eastern North America it has been widely planted and is now common in natural areas and cultivated yards across the continent. There are many coneflower species but the purple is probably the best known. It’s a gorgeous plant that pollinators love, is in bloom for a long time, and is amazingly easy to grow in both formal and naturalistic plantings. Deer seem to leave them alone. Few wildflowers are as well suited to backyards, especially those that have some sun.
Many people claim medicinal value from Echinaceas, but scientific evidence is mixed and uncertain. Enjoy it for its beauty, ease of growing and pollinator benefit.
A simple and free way to establish this perennial is to is to glean seeds. Keep an eye out for blooming coneflowers this summer in places were collection is allowed and return in the fall. Wearing leather gloves rub the prickly heads between fingers into a bag to free the seeds. Then, immediately scatter them in appropriate places in your yards. Coneflowers love moist soil and partial to full sun.
Coneflower seed is readily available at garden stores, and many nurseries sell potted young plants. Usually purple coneflowers bloom the second growing season after planting and need little care.
Two of our favorite nurseries for plants native to the Midwest are Ion Exchange and Prairie Moon Nursery.