Beautiful gardens by William Johnson
YOU CAN invite butterflies into your landscape if you provide the right conditions and the right plants. If you want butterflies in your yard, there are certain things to do and certain things not to do. The process is simple. The rewards are stunning.
Go ahead – imagine a garden full of beautiful flowers. Now, add the fluttering movement and brilliant color of butterflies and you have one of nature’s most enchanting combinations.
Not satisfied with the occasional, chance appearance of butterflies, many gardeners are creating butterfly gardens with plants specially chosen to invite these creatures into their landscape.
To plant a butterfly garden properly, you need to have a general understanding of the life cycle of butterflies. They pass through four distinct stages – from the egg to the caterpillar, or larva, the chrysalis, or pupa, and the adult, or imago, butterfly.
While they might look very different at each stage, it is important to understand that a caterpillar is not a different creature – it is simply a baby, or teenage, butterfly.
Although some of the butterfly caterpillars, such as Gulf fritillary larvae, appear to be heavily armed with spines, none is able to sting. On the other hand, moths are closely related to butterflies and also have a caterpillar stage, but some moth caterpillars do sting.
Butterfly caterpillars feed voraciously on the leaves of plants. From the American snout to the painted lady and the viceroy, each type of butterfly caterpillar will feed specifically only on certain plants and the adult female butterfly will lay her eggs only on those plants that will properly nourish her offspring.
For example, monarch butterfly caterpillars will feed only on milkweed plants such as asclepias. Gulf fritillary caterpillars prefer species of passion vines such as passiflora. The parsley worm, which grows up to be the eastern black swallowtail, feeds on parsley, dill and fennel.
Sulfur butterflies lay their eggs on cassias and the preferred food of long-tailed skipper larvae is bean leaves, as in lima, snap and other beans grown in the vegetable garden.
The orange dog caterpillar, which feeds on citrus trees and disguises itself to look like bird droppings, grows up to be the spectacular giant swallowtail butterfly.
These larval food plants are planted into a butterfly garden with the hope that butterflies will lay eggs on them and they will then be consumed by caterpillars. This is one of the few situations I can think of in which a gardener actually hopes a plant will be eaten by caterpillars.
Needless to say, the use of insecticides should be limited in areas dedicated to butterfly gardens.
But remember that the caterpillars are picky about the source of their food, so they generally will feed only on the larval food plants you provide for them. That means you really do not need to be concerned that they will attack and damage other types of plant in your landscape.
As for adult butterflies, they feed primarily on nectar from flowers. Many commonly grown garden flowers are attractive to them and the more kinds of flower you include in your garden the better your chances of attracting them.
Certain nectar plants seem to be especially irresistible to butterflies. Some of the best are butterfly weed, such as asclepias curassavica; coneflower, such as echinacea purpurea; wild ageratum, such as eupatorium coelestinum; butterfly bush, from the buddleia species; lantana, such as lantana camara and lantana montevidensis; pentas, such as pentas lanceolata; and the salvia species.
Don’t be disappointed if at first you don’t see butterflies flocking to your yard in droves. Remember, a butterfly garden is an invitation, not a command performance.
The more plants you put in and the longer you stick with it the more likely you are to see butterflies. After a while, spotting a butterfly will be more common. And the first time you find caterpillars on your milkweed, parsley or passion vine, you’ll find the excitement makes it all worthwhile.
As insects, butterflies are cold-blooded and depend on the warmth of the sun for energy to maintain proper body temperature, so locate your butterfly garden in an area that receives the morning sun and warms up early.
This is especially important in spring and fall when nights are cool and also because most larval and nectar food plants prefer to grow in a site that receives six to eight hours of direct sun a day.
Butterfly gardens strive to attract, welcome and nurture these fascinating and lovely insects that add so much to the pleasures of gardening. With their abundance of bright, colorful flowers, the gardens also can contribute to the beauty of the overall landscape.
Don’t forget to include your children, grandchildren or others in your butterfly-garden activities. Kids are delighted by the changing stages in a butterfly’s life cycle and it is a great way for them to learn more about nature.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/galveston/index.htm.