Butterflies in bloom

Gardens help attract colorful insects to the Lowcountry

Summer is the perfect opportunity to interact with butterflies in the Lowcountry, as their peak season falls between June and August. 

The dainty, often colorful insects get their energy from the heat, and the warmer the weather, the faster their metabolism works — and the faster the caterpillars turn into butterflies, according to Carlos Chacaon, the manager or natural history at the Coastal Discovery Museum.

Six years ago, the Hilton Head Island museum opened a live butterfly enclosure. That project has inspired many Lowcountry residents to set up their own butterfly gardens, which has benefited not just the winged beauties but other native critters as well. 

Butterflies2“When you’re building a garden to promote butterflies, you are also benefiting other species,” Chacon said. “They need nectar plants to feed on. They need the plants to lay their eggs. And then the caterpillars are food for birds and lizards and spiders. So you are providing food for other animals, too.”

According to Chacon, there are now butterfly gardens in Moss Creek, Indigo Run, Long Cove, Sun City Hilton Head and Hilton Head Plantation; on Pinckney Island; and at Bluffton High School.  

The museum’s butterfly garden has anywhere between four and seven different species of native butterflies at a time. It currently has 13 different host plants, which are used by butterflies to lay their eggs. Those plants can each raise a different type of butterfly. Spicebush swallowtails, zebra longwings, and monarch butterflies are just a few of the varieties residing inside the museum’s habitat. 

“In theory, you could raise these butterflies in your backyard,” Chacon said. “And that’s what we do — we teach a lot of people how to do that through lectures to botanical garden clubs, to high schools, to anybody who is interested.”

One group that has shown interest in conserving butterflies is an ESOL class at Bluffton High. With the help of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological science technicianand Bluffton High science teacher Tim Chase, ESOL teacher Debbie Davis and her class installed a 400-square-foot pollinator garden at the school. The garden opened to the public in May.

Chase has been working on a national initiative to save monarch butterflies, and he said getting youth interested is key to conservation. He plans to train teachers so they can reproduce the Bluffton High garden at other schools. 

Over the summer, the agency runs a program called the Youth Conservation Corps at the Savannah Wildlife Refuge. The eight-week-long federally funded summer work program employs 15- to 19-year-olds to work on national parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife lands and national forest lands. 

Chase has a crew of four teens working on the pollinator initiative. The group has partnered with the Bluffton Chamber of Commerce to install a pollinator garden outside of its office in Old Town Bluffton, and with the mayor’s office to install another garden at Bluffton Oyster Factory Park. 

“The idea is to get as many businesses as possible, particularly in the downtown area, to beautify their properties with native pollinator plants and create a patchwork of pollinator habitats all throughout the town,” Chase said.


Butterflies3Using the right plants, butterfly enthusiasts can create gardens that will attract the winged beauties. According to Carlos Chacon, the Coastal Discovery Museum’s manager of natural history, the following native plants can serve as host plants to the corresponding species of butterflies:

  • Sassafras will attract the spicebush swallowtail.
  • Purple passionflower and yellow passionflower attract zebra longwings and Gulf fritillaries.
  • Black cherry and yellow poplar are popular with tiger swallowtails.
  • Milkweed will draw monarch and queen butterflies.
  • Pipe vine and Virginia snake root are preferred by the pipevine swallowtail.
  • Sicklepod plant will attract the cloudless sulphur.
  • Water hemlock is popular with black swallowtails.
  • Pawpaw tree will draw zebra swallowtails.
  • Toothache tree is a favorite of the giant swallowtail.
  • Red bay will attract the Palamedes swallowtail.


The butterfly enclosure at the Coastal Discovery Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday from May through October. There is no charge to enter. Guided tours of the butterfly habitat are offered at 3 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. For more information, call 843-689-6767 or go to www.coastaldiscovery.org.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological science technicianTim Chase is looking for businesses and individual landowners who would be interested in hosting pollinator gardens on their properties. If they pay for the material, the Fish and Wildlife Service will offer consulting and will install the garden. For more information, contact outreach coordinator Nancy Fernandez at 843-784-9911.