Gardening for butterflies


Gardening for butterflies is a suspenseful art, a bit like holding a picnic and wondering if your invited guests will show up. It’s because butterflies are choosy insects. Any gardener can have aphids, but red admirals, painted ladies and tiger swallowtails insist upon certain amenities, such as sunshine and shelter from wind.

According to a National Gardening Association newsletter, to butterflies, the plants in a garden are more important than the design. They need flowers for nectar throughout the growing season.

Butterflies seem especially attracted to gardens boasting generous patches of a given nectar flower. Grape hyacinths, lilacs, yarrows, perennial phlox, purple coneflowers, bee balm, anise hyssop, oregano, and asters are just a few of the possibilities. Don’t settle for one or two plants, but instead try growing a large “patch” of your choice.

If your garden has a low, damp area, plant moisture lovers like the rosy-flowered swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Joe-Pye weed, forget-me-nots, and bee balm. Create a shallow puddle to attract swallowtails, blues, sulfurs and other butterflies that enjoy drinking at mud puddles.

What about the caterpillars? Butterfly gardeners should use insecticides with caution. Don’t fret too much about caterpillars chewing your prized plants. Natural predators usually keep caterpillar populations under control (except on my cabbage and broccoli). The larvae of many butterflies feed only on certain plants and trees.

Each delicately winged butterfly that graces your garden spent a part of its life in another, less well-known form: a larva. To enjoy butterflies in greatest abundance, learn to recognize them whatever their stage of growth. All begin as an egg, which shortly becomes the larval form, a caterpillar. After feeding, caterpillars pupate in a chrysalis, then transform into beautiful butterflies.

Some favorite butterflies in the garden are:

· Tiger Swallowtail – the caterpillar lives in a leaf shelter of its food plant, often trees such as cherry, poplar, birch, and basswood.

· Monarch – Birds learn fast to avoid this caterpillar and butterfly. The larvae absorb toxins from their food plant, milkweed.

· Buckeye – This caterpillar is gardener-friendly because it eats weeds such as plantain. The “eyespots” on both wings of the adult are used to frighten predators.

· Painted Lady – Colors on the caterpillar vary, but the yellow side stripes are consistent. Because the adults are so adaptable, this species is particularly widespread.

· Red Admiral – This caterpillar feeds on nettle plants, inside an individual leaf tied up with silk. Adults like to linger on sunny garden paths, and often rest on a wooden structure.

· Black Swallowtail – Just about any plant of the carrot family, such as carrots, dill and parsley, are fair game for this caterpillar. When you see the butterflies in your garden, you know the caterpillars will follow soon.

My favorite garden almanac’s list of gardening tasks for June includes: 1) Weed planting beds as necessary and sprinkle a “Pre-emergent” (If desired), 2) Throw healthy garden clippings onto the compost pile, 3) Deadhead repeat-blooming roses to encourage more flowers, 4) Keep an eye on your tomato plants and spray a protectant fungicide when necessary. Remember to read and follow all label instructions and 5) Make a pass, with hand or hoe, through each garden bed each week, since weeds are not just unsightly, but steal moisture, nutrients and light from desired plants (according to author, Margaret Roach).

Author of “Bringing Nature Home,” Douglas Tallamy, urges gardeners to use native plants in our gardens to support a diverse and balanced food web essential to all sustainable ecosystems. As gardeners, we should be stewards of our land. This book includes an extensive list of host plants for butterflies and moths. Plant it, and they will come!

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