Ancient civilizations revered the butterfly and some believed them to be
the spirits of dearly departed. Today, these delicate creatures bring movement
and color to the wild garden, and play an important role as pollinators.
Butterflies are elusive, but you can
increase your chances of having them spend time in your garden by providing
all their needs…not just a fast food rest stop. Remember the four basic
elements for creating a wildlife habitat: food, water shelter and places
to raise young.
Food for adult butterflies is flower
nectar, and many gardens provide this nourishment. However, not all flowers
produce enough visible nectar to make them attractive to butterflies. Humans
(in the hybridization process) have manipulated some flower species, in
order to produce big, showy blooms. Flowers like roses, peonies and tulips,
or flowers that are described as “doubles” are generally not good candidates
for the butterfly garden. Unlike humans, butterflies can see into the ultraviolet
end of the light spectrum, which allows them to identify dark nectar guides
around the center of a flower. So consequently, the best nectar plants
tend to be single-flowered, native species. Also, butterflies will be more
likely to visit if they see large stands of one type of plant, as opposed
to smaller groups of many different flowers.
The following is a list of nectar
flowers that are almost certain to attract a lot of attention, so keep
it handy when you are selecting plants or seeds for your garden: Cosmos,
sunflower, Mexican sunflower (tithonia), butterfly bush (buddleia – shrub),
milkweed (asclepias), bee balm (monarda), asters, lantana, salvia, phlox
Interestingly, the adults of a few
species of butterflies do not nectar on flowers. They gain their nourishment
from rotting fruit and animal feces. For obvious reasons, I try not to
offer the latter in my garden. However, I do offer a butterfly delicacy
called “mash”. This consists of pieces of rotting fruit, mixed with a little
stale beer. You can either put this mash in saucers around the garden,
or some folks actually “paint” it on tree trunks.
Although butterflies do not actually
drink water, they do like to do something called “puddling”. You may have
seen a group of butterflies gathered in a mud puddle after a big rain.
They are actually drinking up minerals obtained from the mud. I like to
create these butterfly “swimming pools” by making small depressions in
the soil for rain to collect and add small flat stones or rocks that sit
above the water level. The stones keep the pools accessible and also provide
a place for basking… another interesting butterfly behavior. Basking is
when the insect spreads its wings to soak up the warmth of the sun. Butterflies
need to warm the fluid in their wings up to a certain temperature before
they can fly. Butters are solar-powered!
Because butterflies are solar-powered,
they tend to spend their time in areas of full sun. And it just so happens
that most of the flowers that are prime nectar sources require full sun
to flourish. The one weather factor that butters do not tolerate well is
wind. A successful butterfly garden should contain windbreaks, such as
a backdrop of tightly planted shrubs, fencing or even the walls of the
house or garage…providing that windbreak does not obstruct the full sun.
To be more specific, the windbreak should be established in the north to
northeast corner of the planted area, so that the south to southwest area
(the sunniest part) holds the plants.
Larval or host plants provide the
food necessary for caterpillars to complete their stage of development,
and female butterflies are always searching for a place to lay their eggs.
It is important to note that nectar plants are not always necessarily good
host plants and vice versa. A good butterfly garden must have both. For
example, Eastern Black Swallowtails (pictured) will sip nectar from a variety
of flowers, but will only lay their eggs on plants in the carrot family
(parsley, dill, fennel and Queen Ann’s lace). Monarchs will also nectar
on many different plants, but only lay their eggs on plants in the milkweed
family. The list can be quite extensive, so I recommend a good field guide
like Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies.
If you are worried about losing all
your culinary herbs to hungry caterpillars, just plant a few extra plants.
Butterfly caterpillars are extremely vulnerable to predators (birds and
spiders), and few of them survive in the garden to do much damage.