Wild Things…
Butterfly Gardening - Part 1
By Karen Vizzi
     No wild garden would ever be complete without the beauty of butterflies. These delicate, winged creatures bring movement and color to the garden, not to mention the important role they play as pollinators. This week’s edition of Wild Things will be the first in a two-part series on Butterfly Gardening.
     Although we are still several weeks away from seeing any butterflies, now is the time to plan. When gardening for any type of wildlife, there are 4 major elements required to provide suitable habitat: food, water, shelter (from predators) 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. These are generally not good choices for a butterfly garden. Examples would include roses, peonies and tulips, or flowers that are described as “doubles”. 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, naturally occurring 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
and Verbena.
     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. It drives the Question Mark Butterflies in my yard over the edge!
     Moving on to the requirement of water…although butterflies do not actually drink, the 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 or sand in the water. So I create very shallow depressions in selected areas, lined with plastic garbage bags to retain the water, and add dirt and sand. To these butterfly “swimming pools”, I also 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!
     Next week, we’ll talk about creating sheltered areas and the most important aspect – providing host plants for butterflies to breed.
    Bird Brainers: One of the best ways to bird watch is actually to “bird listen.” You can often confirm the presence of a bird by hearing its song…long before you see it.
    Butterfly Bullets: Find out what species to expect in our area this summer at 
www.npsc.nbs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/ny/toc.htm
    Plant Pointers: Be sure to thin your seedlings if you have over-planted. Too many seedlings competing for water and light in a small space will weaken all of them. Cuticle scissors make a great tool for thinning tiny seedlings.

 
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