Butterflies Are Free, To A Degree


About 20 years ago butterflies became the rage among gardeners.

Books on butterfly gardening were falling off the presses. Botanical gardens and even some zoos were building butterfly gardens and enclosed butterfly habitats. Many an unwitting gardener was suckered into buying curious wooden butterfly houses and overwintering homes at shops and through mail-order catalogs.I was determined not to get taken with the marketing gimmicks and fad frenzy, so never did a reader see mention of butterfly gardening in this column. In fact, subsequent university research and scientific opinion has shown that these butterfly homes served no purpose other than to line the pockets of the marketers.

Even a few years back, in the summer of 2006, two mild winters and near-perfect breeding conditions in the Northeast yielded an explosion of butterflies. Here on the East End, there were even more varieties than ever before that summer.

It was particularly apparent to me because I have a small holding nursery of perennials outside my office window. I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful silent visitors as they glided about searching for food, mates and overnight accommodations.

But things have changed. Butterflies, with the exception of the ubiquitous Monarch, have been a dwindling feature in our landscapes for a number of years. Reductions in natural habitats, indiscriminate use of pesticides and their subjectability to the weather seemed to reduce the flutterers’ populations to the point where a handful in a summer is a milestone.

It’s all made it abundantly clear that yes, indeed, you can garden with the intent of attracting butterflies. But as with any pursuit, this one has its ups and downs.

Not only is it necessary to have “food” plants in your garden that will attract butterflies as they feed on the nectar, it’s also necessary to offer places where the females will lay their eggs and where both sexes have access to water.

Some females are pickier about which host plants to lay their eggs on than others. For example, caterpillars of the Monarch butterfly develop only on milkweed, while the black swallowtail feeds only on parsley, dill and closely-related plants.

It’s not only the adult butterflies that can be interesting additions to the garden. The larvae, which we know as caterpillars, can be quite spectacular. Some have hairs or forked spines (such as the tomato hornworm). Others, such as certain swallowtail caterpillars, can look like snakes or bird droppings. Still more, such as the sulphurs, can camouflage themselves or blend into their surroundings very well.

If caterpillars are eating excessive foliage (the aforementioned down side) they can simply be picked up (with gloves please) and gently moved to another less noticeable portion of the plant.

Remember that insects—and butterflies are insects—are cold-blooded. They cannot internally regulate their body temperatures. They will readily bask in the sun when it’s warm out but few are seen early in the morning, on cloudy days or in deep shade. As a result, it’s a good idea to leave open areas in a yard for butterflies to sun themselves, as well as partly shaded areas where they will tend to hide on cloudy days or cool off on oppressively warm days.

Butterflies also like puddles and they can often be seen at a pond or stream’s edge and even at the edge of a fountain that isn’t splashing.

Males of several species will congregate at small rain pools after a thundershower, forming what is referred to as “puddle clubs” or “mud clubs,” where it is thought they get mineral supplements from the water as well as moisture. Permanent puddles or water features will also work but what works best is a feature that is sunken and then filled with small stones or gravel and water.

Adult butterflies have mouth parts shaped into a long, coiled tube. Forcing blood into the tube straightens it out, allowing the insect to feed on liquids, its sole diet. They get all of their food from this tube, which limits them to nectar and standing water.

It’s a common misconception that butterflies feed on pollen. Also, remember that it’s only at the larval stage, when they are caterpillars, that butterflies have the chewing mouth parts that enable them to eat foliage.

Adults have large, rounded, compound eyes, which allow them to see in all directions without turning their heads. They see you coming from all sides.

Like most insects, they are very nearsighted and are more attracted to large stands of a particular flower than those planted singly. This explains why I can have hundreds of butterflies on my small 4-by-9 patch of cone flowers that becomes a riot of colors and flutters.

They do not see the color red as well as we do, but they can see polarized light (which tells them the direction the sun is pointing) as well as ultraviolet light, which is present on many flowers and guides them to nectar sources. They also have very well developed senses of smell, which is picked up not by a nose but via their very complex antennae.

If you intend to plant specifically for the butterflies, it should be considered that many of the plants that they find most attractive are actually weeds in other settings. Good examples are thistles and dandelion, all highly attractive to several of the more common butterflies—but not exactly what you want to encourage in the landscape.

Also consider that a well tended and manicured garden and lawn will actually discourage butterflies from establishing a habitat. The highest concentrations of butterflies that I’ve seen are in free-form gardens where the gardener or designer has simply let loose.

Insecticides, both chemical and natural, can be a major problem as well. Caterpillars are highly susceptible to the natural insecticide bacillus thuringiensis, commonly referred to as “BT,” which is used to control cabbage loopers, gypsy moth caterpillars and a host of other plant eaters.

There is also great controversy about some farm plants—most notably corn—which are available with a BT enhanced gene that can be deadly to feeding butterflies. As for garden insecticides, adult butterflies can be killed as they rest on a surface that has been insecticide-treated.

There are about a dozen different butterflies that you can attract to your garden. There are swallowtails, Monarchs, red admirals, painted ladies, great spangled fritillaries, mourning cloaks and others.

You can tempt each one with a particular plant and its nectar, but it takes some research as well as patience. Here’s a partial list of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs that will help your and their endeavor: aster, bee balm, butterfly bush, butterfly plant, coreopsis (tickseed), cosmos, gaillardia, goldenrod, hibiscus, Joe Pye weed, lilac, marigold, ornamental thistles, parsley, phlox, purple cone flower, sunflower, sweet pea, verbena and zinnia.

Also remember that you need to provide food for the caterpillars. To the above list, please consider: broccoli, cabbage, carrot, Queen Ann’s lace, willow, hackberry, cottonwood, aspen, elm and locust.

There are a number of excellent guides and keys to butterflies if you’d like to know more about what’s passing through or feeding in your garden or pausing at your puddle. There is also a long list of books on butterfly gardening. “Peterson Flash Guide to Butterflies” is an easy-to-use and conveniently folded, laminated, pictorial key with text.

Just remember that you can plant until you’re 100, and plant all the “right” plants, but if you’re trying to attract butterflies that don’t naturally pass our way; it just ain’t gonna happen. Meanwhile, keep growing.

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