While butterflies often mimic leaves as a defense mechanism, leaves sometimes turn around and play the trick back on butterflies. With their soft, delicate form, its no surprise that butterflies and leaves are often mistaken for one another. Ornamental plants with butterfly shapes can add an interesting element and a conversation piece to your garden.
Mopane trees, native to South Africa, are easy to identify thanks to their butterfly-shaped leaves. The leaf sets are coupled and joined at the stem like a butterfly with two wings. Although they appear bright green when they emerge, the leaves eventually turn into an array of autumn colors come fall. The trees are large, reaching to 75 feet, but bear inconspicuous blossoms. Mopane trees are harvested for their useful and versatile lumber.
The butterfly plant, Christia obcordata, is a new variety of plant related to beans and discovered in recent decades. The leaves, which often have vivid stripes, are strikingly similar to butterflies. It is a short, sprawling perennial that exhibits flat, wide leaves. It has three leaflets, with the center one taking on a butterfly-like shape. Christia vespertilionis, also known as red butterfly wing or Mariposa, has similar traits, but exhibits narrower leaves and less-pronounced stripes.
Shamrocks, particularly the purple shamrock or Oxalis triangularis, have triangular-shaped leaves with soft edges that often look like butterflies. The bright purple leaves are bent upwards so they appear like butterflies floating above the stem. Shamrocks are vigorous, spreading plants that can quickly take over a yard. Eventually, they produce five-petaled flowers in white and pink. Oxalis purpurea is a similar species, but with rounded trifoliate leaves and large vibrant flowers that bloom throughout the year.
The yellow butterfly vine, Mascagnia macroptera, offers pretty, bright flowers during the spring, but the seeds are actually the butterfly mimickers. When summer comes, seed pods produce wings that unfold and appear like butterfly wings. Eventually, the thin pods can be harvested and planted. The butterfly vine has a high heat tolerance and reaches 10 to 12 feet up a trellis or fence. The clusters of vivid yellow flowers appear continuously from springtime to frost.