By Cheryl Allen
If you are like me, you spent at least part of the winter leafing through gardening catalogs. I love winter, but by February I am ready for a new season. How better to prepare than planning for something new in the yard or garden? Better yet if that something new improves my backyard habitat by attracting and nurturing butterflies.
Why butterflies? Most of us are simply enchanted with their beauty. A more practical reason to attract butterflies is we need them. The adults’ constant search for nectar is a critical fragment in the grand scheme of nature: the flower feeds the butterfly which lives to reproduce while the butterfly ensures the plant’s own future generations by carrying pollen from blossom to blossom. Also, both adult butterflies and their larvae serve as food for other animals. And the study of butterflies adds to scientific research.
One problem for butterfly proliferation is shrinking habitat. Endangered butterfly species do not get the press that threatened birds and mammals do, but many species of lepidoptera (from the Greek lepis which means “scale” and ptera which means “wing”) are on the verge of extinction. We can do our part to replace some lost habitat by making our backyards butterfly havens.
What attracts butterflies? They need sunlight and warmth, shelter from the elements, water they can access, and nectar and food sources.
Butterflies are “cold blooded” which means they cannot generate their own warmth. Few yards are so shady they discourage butterflies. A south facing stone wall or the south side of a building offers an additional butterfly-attracting warm-up area.
Butterflies need shelter from the wind, protection from their predators, and protected areas for breeding. Shrubs, fall litter, and windbreaks made of trees, fences, or strategically placed buildings help provide this. And don’t be such a neatnik in autumn; leave a few messy spots of leaves and branches around your yard for butterfly pupa to winter over.
Just like us, butterflies need water as well as a supply of minerals. Fragile creatures that they are, their water sources must be extremely shallow. Wet sand, earth, and mud make the best butterfly fountains; bury a bucket of sand in a sunny place and place a few rocks and sticks on the surface and fill with water. If your neighbors don’t, mind, a mesh bag of wet manure hung from a tree branch also works well. Butterflies get their minerals from damp sand, earth, mud, or manure, but you can add a livestock salt block for an extra treat.
For nectar sources, butterflies are partial to blossoms of purple and gold, but also like red, orange, and pink. For purple, plant pin-cushion flowers, Russian sage, Joe Pye weed, purple coneflower, or a butterfly favorite, butterfly bush. For gold, try coreopsis, yarrows, marigolds, and goldenrods. Different species of butterflies prefer different colors, so for the best variety of butterflies, plant a wide variety of colors. The red of cardinal flowers, the orange of butterfly weed, and the pink of milkweed will add diversity.
Butterflies prefer flat-topped flowers that offer flat landing pads they can access without damaging their wings. Plants with clustered flowers allow the butterfly to reach many sources of nectar with little expenditure of energy. Because of their short proboscis, butterflies also favor short flower tubes. Plants that satisfy these criteria include coneflower, aster, gaillardia, shasta daisy, black-eyed Susan, butterfly bush, goldenrod, veronica, yarrow, and sedum.
Butterflies need nectar all season long. Aim for a variety of bloom times so that something is available spring, summer, and fall.
If your space or budget is limited, plant old-fashioned zinnias in mixed colors and in the fall, save the seeds for next year.
We learn the stages of an insect’s life in elementary school science class: egg, larva (caterpillar), cocoon (chrysalis, pupa), adult. We learn about metamorphosis and maybe even diapause (hibernation). Butterfly needs vary depending on which stage they are in.
Adults, of course, need nectar, but the plants on which they feed frequently are not the plants on which they lay eggs. Generally, a diverse collection of native plants and trees will serve your butterfly visitors well, but you can supplement these with specific plants such as members of the dill family (dill, parsley, coriander, fennel), wild plants such as milkweed, and flowers such as nasturtiums.
Again, if you are like me, your yard probably already has many butterfly-friendly features in the flowerbeds, vegetable and herb gardens, and foundation plantings. Remember to refrain from pesticide use, as even some “organic” pest control can be harmful to butterflies at one stage or another of their life cycle.
- The Butterfly Garden, by Mathew Tekulsky, The Harvard Common Press, 1985
- Creating a Butterfly Garden, by Marcus Schneck, Simon and Schuster, Inc. 1993
- “Create a Butterfly Haven,” Organic Gardening, Rodale Press, Jan./Feb. 2003
- “Attracting Butterflies to Your Backyard, Schoolyard, Workplace, or Community Wildlife Habitat,” National Wildlife Federation Guide, available online by clicking here.
- “Special Feature Gardens,” Landowners Guide, available online by clicking here.