Beautiful Native Plants

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Snow squarestem: A bee and butterfly magnet

A great purple hairstreak butterfly
sipping nectar from a snow squarestem.
Snow squarestem or salt and pepper (Melanthera nivea), a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae), attracts a high volume of butterflies, skippers, bees, wasps and even hummingbirds.

It has only white disk florets in its flower head–unlike a sunflower, it has no ray florets that look like petals. Its common name comes from the white flowers and its square stems with a mostly opposite leaf arrangement. Many members of the mint family (Lamiaceae) also have square stems and opposite leaves, so when I first heard the common name I assumed that this was in the mint family, but the plants are classified by their flowers’ characteristics, not by their stems or leaves.  (See A Plant by Any Common Name…)

USDA range map for
snow squarestem

A drought-tolerant, salt-spray-tolerant,
easy-to-grow native

The squarestem is a perennial that dies to the ground each winter and over winters with a ring of basal leaves. It can tolerate poor soil, drought, and some salt spray, which are all important traits for much of its range, particularly here in Florida. Its range includes most of the SE US, according to the USDA.

Three and half years ago, I acquired one small plant from our local Florida Native Plant Society chapter’s monthly plant raffle. I knew it could grow to four feet tall, so I planted it behind some palmettos and wax myrtles that I keep trimmed in a semi-shady garden.

I’ve enjoyed all the buzzing and fluttering around this plant. The area is thick with pollinators of all shapes and sizes as soon as the sun comes up until dusk.
Carpenter bee enjoying the squarestem nectar.

A green anole and a skipper on a snow squarestem.
Humans are not the only beings who know that there will be lots of bugs flying around. I often see lizards lying in wait, camouflaged in the green of the plant.

But, there’s a problem in this butterfly paradise…

Since I planted the snow squarestem in spring of 2009, it has come back bigger each year and it has successfully reseeded itself in the area. I’ve brought snow squarestem seedlings to chapter meetings for the raffle so others can start their own butterfly magnet areas. I’ve planted it in other places in my yard and I’ve actually just thrown some of the seedlings into the compost pile when I don’t have time to pot them up or replant. The growth is a vase shape of multiple stems. As the season progresses, some of the outside stems fall over and many of the lower leaves turn black . The spent flower heads also turn black. While it’s not listed as a larval host of any butterflies or moths, clearly, something is eating it—many of the leaves are pretty ragged. Toward the end of the summer, it is definitely NOT an attractive plant. So this plant would not be recommended as a specimen plant in your butterfly garden, but hidden in the back behind other sturdier plants, it will still be loved by all those pollinators.

Snow squarestem plant is contained by other plants.

The snow squarestem plant with its sloppy habit should probably not be used as a specimen plant in your butterfly garden, but hidden behind other more presentable plants. Most native nurseries do not grow or sell this plant because of its weedy nature.

The next year I trimmed the largest squarestems back in the spring to reduce the falling stem problems, especially near garden edges. I also moved some of the many seedlings of this plant to some more out-of-the-way areas in our landscape. I've also potted some up for our chapter's plant sales, so the next butterfly lover can take care of her flitting friends.

Once you have some of this drought-tolerant, easy-to-grow native established and tucked away in your yard, the butterflies and bees will love you.

© Ginny Stibolt