September 21, 2011
A secluded wooden bench tucked into the corner of the mailbox garden is my favorite place to observe butterflies. I can sit unnoticed by both family and street traffic while I watch the winged wonders flit over my flowers. The kaleidoscope of colors and form includes monarchs, skippers, various types of swallowtails, painted ladies and many more.
For who among us gardeners doesn’t want more color and movement in the flower patch? Who doesn’t wish to ooh and ahh over Mother Nature’s “jewels”? Butterflies are easy to entice to your garden, my friend, but in order to have them you need to supply several things. First, keep your garden organic, because if you kill “bad bugs” with chemicals, you’re also eliminating the caterpillars from which butterflies develop. Next, you’ll need plants to supply nectar and cover; and host plants for these beautiful flying insects to lay their eggs on.
Let’s examine the last several requirements:
Butterflies depend on specific plants for food, or nectar. Natives are best, as butterflies evolved with these plant, but sometimes non-natives will do. Plan to have food available from early spring through autumn, and include trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, herbs, annuals. A sample planting in order of floral appearance, might include spicebush, dogwood, lilac, violets, kolkwitzia, viburnum, liatris, verbena, monarda, echinacea, buddleia, asclepias, dill, phlox, Joe Pye weed, rudbeckia, sedum, and aster.
In order to reproduce, butterflies need host plants upon which to lay their eggs. When the tiny caterpillars hatch they dine on the host plant, which include milkweed, sycamore, willow, parsley, hollyhock, and snapdragon. Be prepared for host plants to look ragged as the hungry baby caterpillars eat their fill and move on to the next life stage. It’s time to share!
After one to two weeks of gorging itself the caterpillar finds a safe place to hang upside down; surrounds itself with a protective cover and changes into a butterfly. This metamorphosis takes an additional one to two weeks.
During their short life time butterflies also need minerals (especially sodium) and water. Mud puddles, dung, and rotting fruit are among the substances supplying necessary nutrients.
Butterflies regulate their body temperature according to the air. Being cold-blooded, they need sun to warm up and fly. It helps if the gardener can provide nice sunny spot where they can bask.
Like all creatures, butterflies require shelter from wind and weather. Flowering shrubs provide not only nectar, but protection from spiders, birds and other predators, as well as perches where male butterflies can search for a mate. In winter eggs, larvae and certain species of adult butterflies that do not fly south take cover in leaf litter and leaves, tuck themselves into crevices in tree bark or a wood pile.
When you plan to attract butterflies, visit other gardens and see what plants draw them. Grow large patches of the chosen material so that they’re easily seen by the winged wonders. (Try placing some of the flowers along a path or in front of the border for your ease of viewing.) Select ones which flower over a long season. Remember, a colorful, diverse garden works better for both insects and people. And, if you can, leave a weedy area at the edges of your yard. Butterflies love natural areas, where they hide among grasses and feed on such weeds as nettle, clover, thistle, Queen Ann’s lace, mustard and dandelion.
Capturing the butterfly ballet in your garden requires a bit of planning and patience. But the results are worth it.