If you have a garden with limited space, you might think butterfly host trees are out of the question…I thought that too until I came across an enlightening article from author Brenda Sattler Dziedzic.
In it, she lists all the different host trees she grows in containers and the different types of butterflies they attract.
After researching some of the options, we decided to plant Prunus serotina (black cherry tree) for the following reasons:
- Host option for three local butterflies: eastern tiger swallowtail, coral hairstreak, red spotted-purple
- Nectar flower for spring pollinators (we needed more)
- Easy access to caterpillars with container-sized tree
Since this jumbo Prunus can grow up to 80 feet tall (with a 30 ft spread!) this isn’t a tree species we could even consider for yard or garden planting.
A 20 gallon barrel planter gave us the solution we’d been seeking…
Planting Our Cherry Tree
We found our tree at a spring plant sale, and planted it with instructions from this video tutorial. This was especially useful for deciding the soil content for our container:
Our tree thrived the entire season, and more importantly…it attracted butterflies in its inaugural season!
I found 5 eastern tiger swallowtail eggs in late summer and raised them indoors. I plucked single leaves from the tree and feed them to caterpillars inside florist tubes. This kept the leaves fresh for days…
The tree thrived in season one, but the root was already coming out of the bottom of our apparently not-so-oversized container.
It’s now obvious, cutting back the root ball of our host cherry tree will be an annual fall event due to the accelerated growth of Prunus serotina.
Winter Protection for Potted Trees
Initially, I moved the heavy pot about 20 feet so it would be protected by the south side of our home. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we had attached the caster wheels suggested in the video…DOH!
Going forward, we will no longer move the heavy potted tree each fall. Instead, we will place rabbit fencing and stakes with a 6″ perimeter around the container.
Then, we’ll stuff the area between fence and container with a leafy layer of insulation.
While this won’t give them a ton of protection, we’re hopeful it will give them enough extra warmth to survive winter inside a cold-challenged container.
Fast forward to April and we’ve removed the fall leaves and fencing. Our potted black cherry tree has survived a frigid Minnesota winter and will soon be ready to host the next generation of butterfly caterpillars:
Another option Sattler suggests if you don’t want to grow trees in containers is to stump-cut your host trees: “In the fall I just cut my trees down to 2 to 3 feet. They then will branch out the next year with many shoots and I can keep them shorter. Not only are they shorter but I’ll have more leaves to feed the caterpillars with.”