Why Grow a Butterfly Garden?
- To help preserve these beloved insects, whose habitat areas are fast disappearing.
- Watching them is fun and educational in a way that connects you and your kids to nature.
- It’s a giant step toward getting your backyard certified under the National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Habitat Program.
How to Attract Butterflies
Host Plants are used by butterflies as places to lay
their eggs, and then as food by the emerging caterpillars, so including
some in your garden will attract even more species. But butterflies are
often very picky about which plants they use as hosts, a departure from
their more generic tastes in nectar plants. For example, the Monarch
caterpillars will only eat the milkweed plant. So tuck Milkweed into your border or (if you don't like the look) in an out-of-the-way spot. More host plants are Asters, False Indigo (Baptisia), Golden Alexanders, Sedums, Violets, annual herb Curry
and trailing Licorice plant (Helichrysum), Parsley, Spicebush, Snapdragon and Pipevine. The shrub Spicebush is a great host plant, as are these trees: Hackberry, Elm, Tulip
Poplar, Wild Cherry, Black Willow, and Pawpaw.
Some butterfly experts recommend adding fennel and dill
to the garden as an easy way to provide host plants, but look out - both reseed "like crazy", says our Larry Hurley. Fennel is considered naturalized or
invasive in almost every state in the US and Canada. (Here's a source Larry provided me on the invasiveness of fennel.) Dill reseeds, but less so. Our native
carrot relative, Golden Alexanders (Zizea) is a great alternative and is, in
fact, one of the natural food sources for its butterfly.
Nectar Plants are the plants we see adult
butterflies feeding on, sucking nectar through their long nose-like
proboscis, and an assortment of nectar plants will attract dozens of
butterflies to your garden. Eric Raun, a suburban Maryland butterfly
expert, recorded 32 species feeding on his butterfly bushes alone — the
most of any plant. (And if you’re worried about your butterfly bushes
spreading, remove the dead flowers. That will prevent their
reseeding and encourage reblooms.) Runners-up in Raun’s garden were native plants wild ageratum, milkweed, and blackeyed
nonnative plants verbena, marigold, zinnia, salvia, globe amaranth, and
white clover. And Behnkes' own Miri Talabac tells me that Agastache foeniculum is irresistible to butterflies and most pollinators.
Nectar Plants for Shade include Buttonbush, Summersweet (Clethra), Virginia Sweetspire (Itea), Mountain Mint (for sun to partial shade), Eupatorium rugosum. Eupatorium coelestinum, White Wood Aster,
Blue Wood Aster, Woodland Sunflower, Bugbane (Cimicifuga), Smooth Hydrangea (H.
arborescens), and several native azaleas and rhododendrons.
All butterfly-attracting plants, whether nectar or host, should be
massed in groups of three or more so they can be seen by these
near-sighted insects, but be sure to provide a diversity of plants to
attract lots of species. And because butterflies feed from spring to
fall, be sure to select plants with a variety of booming times.
Many butterflies love to suck liquid from moist soil, an activity
called puddling. You can create a puddle by burying a sand-filled
container in the ground (a shallow saucer or birdbath will do) and
periodically adding stale beer, sweet drinks or water. Some species feed
on overripe fruit, but be warned that yellow jackets are equally
attracted to them. Butterfly houses are more decorative than effective,
generally attracting more wasps than their intended guests. But flat
rocks or patches of dirt in protected spots do provide places for
butterflies to warm themselves in the morning.
- Avoid the use of insecticides. Populations of many species have been
reduced by insecticides, especially sprays to control gypsy moths and
- “Weeds” like clover, violets and dandelions are excellent food for
butterflies, so consider relaxing your definition of the perfect lawn to
include something for the insects. It’ll help our threatened honeybees
and native pollinating bees, too.
- Garden clean-up? Not so much. Some butterflies overwinter as larvae
or pupae in leaf litter at the base of host plants, so leave at least a
light leaf covering around them until early spring.
On sunny days it’s fun to watch adult butterflies feeding and
puddling, for which they’ll stay in place long enough to offer some
awesome photo opps. On cool sunny mornings they’ll also hang out on
those rocks you’ve provided for them, warming their muscles enough for
flight. There are 239 known species of butterflies and moths in the
small state of Maryland alone, so get yourself a pair of binoculars and a
field guide, and start your list!
Join the Monarch Movement
A quick visit to Monarchwatch.org
left me impressed by the organization but curious to know why all the
attention to Monarchs. And I learned that Monarchs attract extra
attention because they’re big, easily identifiable, and their migration
habits are amazing. Not to mention the very real threat to their
existence from decreasing winter habitat areas in Mexico and the use of
pesticides by farmers in the U.S. In fact, 90 percent of Monarch
habitats are agricultural and they’re disappearing at the rate of 3,000
acres every day. Their roadside habitats are destroyed by herbicides and
frequent mowing. It sure would help — and save our tax dollars — if we
just let our roadsides go natural.