Snow squarestem: A bee and butterfly magnet

A great purple hairstreak butterfly sipping nectar from a snow squarestem. By Ginny Stibolt

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 mostly by their flowers’ characteristics, not by their stems or leaves.  (See A Plant by Any Common Name…)

USDA range map for snow squarestem

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. By Ginny Stibolt

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 by Ginny Stibolt

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.

I’ve decided that next year I’ll trim the largest squarestems back in the spring to reduce the falling stem problems. I may even trim some of the stems back this year–we still have four months until our first frost. Maybe I’ll also divide the original plant this winter to establish a good population in some other  out-of-the-way areas in our landscape.

Snow squarestem in the garden

Snow squarestem in the garden hidden behind other plants.

Most native nurseries do not grow this plant because of its weedy nature. But 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 has written “Sustainable Gardening for Florida” and “Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida.” Follow Ginny at
www.greengardeningmatters.com

© 2012, Ginny Stibolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    I like learning about new plants! I have a weedy mountain mint that acts similar and keep it in a drier area to control it’s behavior. I wouldn’t get rid of it for the world – pollinators love it. Thanks for introducing people to snow squarestem.
    Ellen Honeycutt recently posted..Hooray for Helianthus!

  2. Carole says

    Thanks for the heads-up, not familiar with this one and love to attract the pollinators. I wonder if some bee larva may overwinter in those stems?

      • David Ring says

        Hello Ginny,

        I’m part of a community garden group in Dunedin Florida. We have several areas in the garden site devoted to florida natives as a way to attract lots of pollinators. Its working. I don’t recall seeing this plant among the ones we have so I’m going to ask if we can add it to the mix and will be sending your info along as “planting advice.” I’m thinking about adding several passion vines both for the fruit, the flowers, and the butterfly support. The vines will not be shaded, but are about 10 to 15 feet from a large oak tree where the “flutterers” can take cover, if needed.

        Quoting from above article: 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.. Consider the following, we have snails that seem to sample just about anything we grow. We have also had an invasion of stink bugs which seem to be controllable with neem oil which doesn’t kill but slows reproduction rate and seems to discourage the consumption of sprayed leaves. I’ve been wanting to set out some fly paper as a way to trap some of those mystery insects which might be nibbling away unbeknownced, but we will also have to learn to distinguish them from the helpers. ‘So far I haven’t come across any good sources for fly paper, which I think ought to be something that a Dollar Store would carry, but they don’t. Ah well the web has everything.
        Do you have access to any red flowering purslane? We have the yellow kind which grows wild down here and I’d like to introduce some variation. I understand that all varieties are edible, but that some just have less flavor. I saw a web photo where a north florida master gardener had potted up some of the red flowering purslane and it was very handsome in that setting. It should look equally good in our demo gardens here.

        • says

          The problem with sticky traps is that they trap everything–both harmful and beneficial. It is possible that snails or slugs are eating the snow squarestem, but whether it’s slugs or bugs, they are all part of the natural ecosystem. It would be best if you could encourage the beneficials to keep the rest in balance. I am not in the business of selling plants and I only have the yellow purslane in any case. Good luck with your community garden.

    • says

      Thanks Sue. Still photos don’t begin to capture all the busy buzzyness around these plants. Most of the pollinators move quickly, but the hairstreaks seem to be slow drinkers and stay still for the photographer. :-)
      I think the pruning will be successful, because the plants are so vigorous. We’ll see.
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Okra swales

Trackbacks

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