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Drawing the wings of summer to your own backyard

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail seeks the nectar of a bee balm.
An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail seeks the nectar of a bee balm.Joy Marzolf/Photo by Joy Marzolf

If you want birds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators in your yard, offer them the native plants they eat and furnish a habitat for them.

Naturalist and photographer Joy Marzolf will offer such advice when the Milton Public Library hosts an online program called “Native Plant Gardening for Wildlife” on Tuesday, July 7, beginning at 7 p.m.

“Are you a butterfly or bird lover?” the library asks, announcing the online program. “The best way to attract local wildlife to your yard is to plant native plants.”

It helps to know what plants are attractive to them, Marzolf said. "If you plant it," she said, "they will come."

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Marzolf, who lives in Framingham and grew up in Newton, studied biology in college and became a naturalist and an animal behaviorist, photographing hummingbirds in the Southwest and working at the Oregon Zoo. Working with wildlife, she said, is both a job and a passion.

Birds and insects such as butterflies and dragonflies need plant food — seeds and fruit for birds; nectar and leaves for insects — and a variety of plants to perch and rest on.

"The biggest thing I try to get across is to get people thinking about what you do with your space," she said. "The key is to have some diversity in your plants for the animals."

One of the best examples of a creature that needs specific food to prosper is the Monarch butterfly, which feeds on the purple variety of milkweed, Marzolf said. Butterflies will consume nectar from a variety of different species, but the milkweed is the only plant on which the Monarchs will lay their eggs. Their caterpillars hatch and eat the milkweed leaves, which contain a toxin poisonous to other animals. The toxin doesn’t harm the caterpillars, but it protects them from being eaten by birds or other insects.

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“That’s how the caterpillars become butterflies,” said Marzolf, who also presents a program specifically on butterflies.

Some native plants attract dragonflies and spread-winged damselflies. Among the benefits of attracting dragonflies, she said, is that they eat flies and about 100 mosquitoes a day.

Pointing out that June was National Pollinators’ Month, Marzolf said “native bees are in trouble” because certain pesticides are killing them.

Like butterflies and dragonflies, bees seek flower nectar throughout the growing season, so it’s useful to grow plants that bloom at different times. Plants that provide nectar include butterfly weed, clover, blueberry, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, thistles, asters, coneflowers, and goldenrod.

“You might want flowering plants for spring, early spring, summer, and later seasons,” she said. “Something flowering for each part of the season.”

Birds and nectaring insects not only need food, but also habitat. That means growing plants of different heights: a perch for birds, and a lower plant or shrub for insects to hide. Fireflies prefer shrubs, she said.

A variety of species and sizes makes for attractive landscaping, while also attracting birds, Marzolf said. Hummingbirds, with their narrow beaks, are attracted to the tubular shapes of columbine flowers in the spring and seek other species with tubular flowers in the later parts of the growing season.

Fruit trees attract birds. When the berries fall to the ground, if it’s not a robin eating them, it may be a small mammal such as a chipmunk.

Planting native shrubs that keep their berries into the winter such as winterberry and the American cranberry bush viburnum is also good for birds. The common native flower black-eyed Susan provides seeds late in the season, as do sunflowers.

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Other suggestions for a garden that’s alive with birds, bees, and butterflies include reducing the use of pesticides, growing wildflowers where they won’t be mowed until the end of the season, and advocating to protect open spaces in your town.

If a large field or other natural open space has been replaced by a housing development, landscaping with native plants can help replace lost habitat, and nobody has to do the whole job by herself, Marzolf said. "If everybody just planted some native plants in their yard, together you can help recover what has been lost."

Registration for the online talk is required through the library website at miltonlibrary.org.

UPDATE: The Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra has canceled its Aug. 8 program to celebrate Plymouth’s 400th anniversary. For more information, visit plymouthphil.org.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.