When are plants riddled with holes a sign of beauty in the garden? When it is butterfly season. Plants that have been munched and chomped by caterpillars are a great sign that you will have happy and healthy butterflies fluttering around soon. With the Jamestown Audubon Center's Monarch Festival coming up next Saturday, what better time than now to evaluate your garden and think how you can make it even more inviting to our fluttering friends. Ancient civilizations revered the butterfly and some believed them to be the spirits of dearly departed. Today, these delicate creatures bring movement and color to the wild garden, and play an important role as pollinators.
Butterflies are elusive, but you can increase your chances of having them spend time in your garden by providing all their needs. Remember the four basic elements for creating any kind of wildlife habitat: food, water, shelter and places to raise young.
Food for most adult butterflies is flower nectar, and many gardens provide this nourishment. The best nectar plants tend to be native species such as milkweeds, thistles, joe-pye weed, ironweed, bee balm and asters. Also, butterflies will be more likely to visit if they see large stands of one type of plant, as opposed to smaller groups of many different flowers. Interestingly, the adults of a few species of butterflies, such as Viceroys, do not nectar on flowers. They gain their nourishment from rotting fruit and animal feces. For obvious reasons, the latter is not something most people want in their gardens. However, you can offer a butterfly delicacy called "mash". This consists of pieces of rotting fruit, mixed with a little stale beer. You can either put this mash in saucers around the garden, or some folks actually "paint" it on tree trunks.
Monarch on Jewelweed.
Photo by Betsy Burgeson
Even if your garden has numerous nectar sources for butterflies, you may not get as many visitors as you would like unless you also provide food for the caterpillars. Larval or host plants provide the food necessary for caterpillars to complete their stage of development, and they are where female butterflies will lay their eggs. It is important to note that nectar plants are not always necessarily good host plants and vice versa. A good butterfly garden must have both. For example, Monarchs will nectar on many different plants, but only lay their eggs on milkweeds (Asclepias).
Although butterflies do not actually drink water, they do like to do something called "puddling". You may have seen a group of butterflies gathered in a mud puddle after a big rain. They are actually drinking up minerals obtained from the mud. To create these butterfly "swimming pools" make small depressions in the soil for rain to collect and add small flat stones or rocks that sit above the water level. The stones keep the pools accessible and also provide a place for basking another interesting butterfly behavior. Basking is when the insect spreads its wings to soak up the warmth of the sun. Butterflies need to warm the fluid in their wings up to a certain temperature before they can fly.
The one weather factor that butters do not tolerate well is wind. A successful butterfly garden should contain shelter and windbreaks, such as a backdrop of tightly planted shrubs, fencing or even the walls of a house or garageproviding that windbreak does not obstruct the full sun.
One of the most important things to remember when growing a butterfly garden is to never use insecticides. Remember that butterflies are insects and these chemicals will kill them. Even if you spray nearby areas, the insecticide may drift into your butterfly garden. Avoiding insecticides also allows the populations of natural predators to increase, and these hunters will help reduce the number of unwanted pests.
Butterflies are some of the most beautiful and interesting creatures on Earth. By planting a butterfly garden with all of the right kinds of plants and flowers that butterflies love to feed on and lay eggs on, you will certainly have a yard full of butterflies throughout the growing season. And since butterflies pay less attention to people than do birds, you can sit nearby and watch without disturbing them. If you wear bright colors, they may even mistake you for a nectar source and visit you up close.
Resources: TheButterflySite.com, butterfliesandmoths.org, Wild ThingsButterflies by Karen Vizzi Best of WNY.com 2006.
The mission of the Chautauqua County Master Gardener Program is to educate and serve the community, utilizing university and research-based horticultural information. Volunteers are from the community who have successfully completed 50+ hours of Cornell approved training and volunteer a minimum of 50 hours per year.
"Like" the Chautauqua County Master Gardeners on Facebook for gardening news and information.
Milkweeds (Common, Swamp)
Milkweeds (Common, Swamp), Goldenrod, Ironweed, Liatris
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Wild cherry, Tulip Tree, Willow, Mountain Ash
Wild cherry, Lilac, Milkweeds, Joe-Pye Weed
Thistles, Hollyhocks, Mallows
Asters, Cosmos, Liatris, Ironweed, Joe-Pye Weed
Milkweeds, Thistles, Ironweed, Joe-Pye Weed, Purple Coneflower
Thistles, Jewelweed, Milkweeds