Planting a Butterfly Garden

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Each type of butterfly feeds on only one or just a few specific kinds of plants during its caterpillar stage . . . the monarch, for example — one of the most commonly reared species — dines almost exclusively on milkweed leaves.
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There are many species of Lepidoptera you can welcome into your garden with open arms and proper plants.

In this installment of our series designed to help you tell friend from foe in your garden, you’ll learn how to convince a particularly desirable group of visitors to set up residency.

Of all nature’s creatures, butterflies — the very essence of freedom and beauty — are surely among the most engaging. And since (unlike many insect types) there are few “pest’ species of Lepidoptera, you can welcome many of them into your garden with open arms. By including a few of their favorite nectar-bearing plants in your flower and/or vegetable patch, you can attract a virtual kaleidoscope of fluttering color throughout much of the year. (And incidentally, since bees are also lured by many of the same flora, you’ll be helping the pollination process, too.)

The butterfly bush (Buddleia) is a very aptly named three to eight-foot-tall shrub that’s loaded with long flower spikes from midsummer to fall’s first frost . . . and it attracts bees and butterflies like a botanical magnet throughout that period. The plant is killed to the ground each year in colder climates, but is semi evergreen where temperatures don’t fall much below freezing (in the latter case, you may have to cut the stems back nearly to the ground in early winter to keep the bush under control . . . but otherwise, it requires no special care at all). Butterfly bushes bloom in any of a variety of colors, including lilac, red, pink, white, purple, and blue.

Among the many other plants that lure butterflies are black-eyed Susan, rose of Sharon, gaillardia mignonette, cornflower, rosemary, columbine, forsythia, lavender, bee balm, primrose, sweet william, and scabiosa. When you’re planning your garden, try to select a mix of species — or to schedule succession plantings — not only to keep your patch in continuous bloom, but also to provide some color variation. Some butterflies have definite color preferences.

Once your visitors arrive, of course, you’ll likely want to learn more about them . . . and there are several excellent field guides on the market to help you do just that. A Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America, East of the Great Plains by Alexander B. Klots  is an excellent handbook, as is The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies by Robert Michael Pyle. In addition, a Golden Guide Series book entitled Butterflies and Moths by Robert Mitchell and Herbert S. Zim is a very reasonably priced paperback volume that’s adequate for most beginners. Check, too, to see if your library or a nearby natural history museum offers a guide specific to your region of the country.

By the way, although up to this point we’ve been discussing how to attract “color on the wing” to your garden, the more serious lepidopterists among you may also want to furnish plants that provide food for butterfly larvae, to encourage each year’s visitors to breed in your garden.

In most cases, each type of butterfly feeds on only one or just a few specific kinds of plants during its caterpillar stage . . . the monarch, for example — one of the most commonly reared species — dines almost exclusively on milkweed leaves. Most field guides (including the first two I mentioned) provide detailed lists of the larval food plants favored by each creature. I should mention, however, that there are some drawbacks to growing “breeding grounds” for lepidoptera:

[1] most of the larval food plants are rather “weedy” looking and

[2] a substantial stand of blooms is usually needed to attract egg laying females . . . so unless you have the extra space, you may just want to leave the job to the native flora in your region.

Anything you do to entice these lovely, delicate creatures to your garden will bring a big return. You won’t harvest more or larger vegetables because of their presence . . . you can’t even count on their help in your battle against destructive insects. But observing their life cycle and witnessing their grace and beauty as they flit from flower to flower makes those hours you spend weeding and cultivating a lot more pleasant. A butterfly garden grows food for the soul. Could anyone ask for a better harvest?