Insects have a pretty crummy reputation. Not too many people are enamored with flies, roaches, or wasps. Yet, there are a few exceptions, such as ladybugs, honeybees (in the right setting), and of course, butterflies. Who doesn’t appreciate butterflies? We’re taken with their beauty, and we hope they’ll visit our gardens. Happily, there are a number of steps we gardeners can take to encourage these “flying flowers.” Creating a landscape that welcomes butterflies isn’t difficult, and it will appeal to people just as much as it does to the butterflies.
Most importantly, don’t spray insecticides in your yard. You’re trying to encourage butterflies and caterpillars, not kill them! If you do have a pest problem, make sure to identify the culprits before taking action. Sometimes spraying isn’t the best option. If you decide you need to apply a pesticide, use it selectively on the plants under attack. Don’t go wild with the sprayer.
Last week I talked about the European Paper Wasp, a new threat to our urban butterflies. The presence of these wasps puts us in a quandary—how do we eliminate the wasps without harming the butterflies? This is one example where selective spraying may actually help in the long run.
Butterflies are usually associated with flowers, but not all flowers attract butterflies. Flowers that butterflies like tend to have flat tops, ideal landing pads for nectar-seeking adults. Suggestions include yarrow, coneflowers, zinnias, and of course, butterfly bush and butterfly weed. Butterflies are attracted to color, so the more flowers you have, the larger the number of visitors.
I was surprised to learn that not all butterflies visit flowers! Early in the season, not many flowers are in bloom. Butterflies such as Weidemeyers Admiral and Mourning Cloaks depend on sap, rotting fruit, and even animal droppings. Placing cut-up fruit in your garden will attract these species.
A successful butterfly garden includes plants that provide caterpillars with food and adults a place to lay their eggs. If you want butterflies, you have to be willing to put up with some chewed leaves. For example, Tomato Hornworms are considered a ravenous garden pest, but they transform into fascinating Hummingbird Moths. Parsley “worms” become swallowtails. If you need help figuring out what’s eating your plants, bring a specimen to your local extension office.
Many butterfly species require specific host plants. Lovage, for example, is excellent swallowtail food (and it distracts them from your parsley crop). Frequently, caterpillars depend on native species. You may have to do some research to find what’s appropriate for your area. I found TheButterflySite.com to be particularly helpful. First you click on your state to learn which species you can expect to visit. Then click over to “Butterfly Host Plants” to get a list of plants for those species.
Plant your butterfly garden in full sun. Like other insects, caterpillars and butterflies are “cold blooded” and need the sun to warm them.
Provide shallow seeps and mud puddles. Butterflies get both water and minerals from these insect-sized wallows.
There are many excellent websites providing information specific to your area. If you live along the Front Range, I recommend:
- “Cultivate a Butterfly Garden,” by Whitney Cranshaw,
- “Butterfly Gardens” on Plantalk
- “Attracting Butterflies to the Garden,” by P.A. Opler and W.S. Cranshaw
- “How to cultivate a butterfly garden: an interview with George Brinkmann” on Front Range Living
According to Brinkman, “Colorado is home to 250 species of butterflies, more than anywhere else in North America.” How many can you entice into your yard?
Photos, from top: Southern Dogface, West Coast Lady on Verbena, butterfly feeding on fruit, swallowtail caterpillar, adult swallowtail drinking from wet sand.