Native tree for butterflies

Bob Dluzen
Special to The Detroit News

Whenever the subject of providing plants for butterflies comes up, things like daisies, asters and milkweeds are among the first plants suggested. Sometimes shrubs such as Buddleia (butterfly bush) are recommended.  Certainly trees are rarely, if ever, included in the conversation.

As it turns out, our native black cherry tree is a strong contender for the most butterfly friendly tree.

Black cherry leaves provide food for a number of butterfly caterpillars such as: swallowtails, viceroys, tussock moths, some sphinx moths and others.

The prolific flowers are a source of nectar for nearly all nectar feeding and pollinating insects including butterflies.

The trees can be found in nearly every fence row or roadside due to the hard, indigestible pits that are excreted by the birds and mammals that feed on the cherriies.

They are attractive trees, especially when they are flowering. Growing in the open, they have an upright, evenly formed shape. However if they take root near other trees or obstructions, they can grow haphazardly and take on interesting shapes as they adapt to their surroundings.

Dozens of species of birds as well as many small and large mammals eat the fruit.

People occasionally eat the fruit, too, although they are mostly pit with very little flesh. They have a sour flavor with some bitterness that most people don’t particularly care for. I’ve found that the flavor can vary somewhat from tree to tree.

Another use for black cherries is as an ingredient in cherry bounce, an alcohol-based cordial developed during colonial times. The cherries are infused into brandy, rum, vodka or whisky and depending on the recipe, other spices.

Although some species of butterflies overwinter as eggs some spend the winter in cocoons, as larvae or in some cases even as adults.

Overwintering adult butterflies seek shelter by wedging themselves in protected spaces such as tree bark. Mature black cherry trees provide plenty of shelter for overwintering butterflies due to its distinctive bark made up of large, flat, flakes.

Typical flakey bark of a mature black cherry tree.

The leaves of black cherry can also provide winter shelter. For example, a red-spotted admiral caterpillar will roll itself up in a cherry leaf forming a kind of blanket that protects it from the elements. They securely anchor the rolled up leaf to branch with a strand of silk allowing them to safely ride out the winter.

If you’re lucky enough to have a black cherry tree in your yard, you can feel good that it is providing food and shelter to a wide variety of butterflies and moths that will enhance your garden next season.