Creating a Butterfly Garden

How to Attract Butterflies to your Garden

Painted-Lady-Butterfly-LSteiderPainted Lady Butterfly perched on Buddleia alternifolia. Photo by: L. Steider

It's such a pleasant surprise when a butterfly happens into a garden. But having butterflies fluttering around doesn't have to be a hit and miss thing. You can actually plan for them. And attracting butterflies is not difficult.

Equipped with a finely tuned sense of smell, butterflies can identify their favorite plants from miles away and will sometimes travel for hours just to take a sip of nectar. Even a planter attached to the windowsill can bring butterflies.

The key to any butterfly garden is making the right selection of flowers. High Country Gardens carries at least 60 different plants designated for attracting butterflies and other pollinators. Just by putting in a few plants, such as Agastache neomexicana or Echinacea purpurea, you are guaranteed to get a few butterflies. But if you have some favorite butterflies, it's even possible to plant specifically for them because each butterfly species has its own favorite flower.

For example, the nectar of the Buddleia (Butterfly Bush) attracts the Giant Swallowtails and the Painted Ladies. Aster attracts the Common Sulphur and Buckeye.

With even more careful plant selection, you can also be assured of attracting butterflies for much of the season. There's nothing like providing for their full growth cycle—from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, and finally, to the emergence of a full-fledged butterfly. For some the process takes only a few short weeks.

Each butterfly species has its own favorite flower.

Adult butterflies are very picky about where they lay their eggs. Eggs are laid on specific food plants so that when the caterpillars emerge from their eggs, they can begin to feed. In many cases food source plants are different from the nectar source. (It should be noted that a pesticide-free garden is very important for butterflies, especially when planting food plants for caterpillars.) So if you're up for it, providing caterpillar food as well as nectar for adult caterpillars (butterflies) makes for an interesting challenge.

It's generally known that the Monarch butterfly only lays its eggs on Milkweed (Asclepias), and that the plant becomes the food source for the caterpillar. As an adult, the Monarch will sip from the Milkweed but also turns to other flowers for nectar. However, the Milkweed nectar attracts a number of different butterflies, such as the Giant Swallowtail, Cabbage White, and Fiery Skippers. But these other species all lay eggs on other types of plants.

Butterflies can identify their favorite plants from miles away and will sometimes travel for hours just to take a sip of nectar.

The relationship between plants and butterflies is tight and complex. When butterflies suck nectar as food, traveling from flower to flower, they carry pollen with them and fertilize the plants. It's one of the finest natural cycles, and sadly this cycle is slowly being lost. In a little book, that's unfortunately out of print, Creating a Butterfly Garden, author Marcus Schneck says: "Humankind's legacy to the butterfly has largely been one of destruction and devastation. Most species are intensely tied to their environments and cannot withstand our ever-growing pressures of development and land consumption." What happens when we create a garden for butterflies is we also participate in their conservation. If we can create a natural habitat for them, we are ensuring their safety.

butterfly-agastache-KVanderpoolButterfly perching on an Agastache, Photo by K. Vanderpool

Following are some perennials that attract butterflies by providing nectar. For a more detailed selection visit the High Country Gardens website.

To ensure the availability of nectar sources throughout the summer look to long-blooming annuals such as cosmos, verbena, lantana, penta, strawflower and heliotrope. These annuals can be planted between the perennials or in potted container gardens.

Though flower nectar is the chief food source for most butterflies, a few butterfly species prefer to feast on rotting fruit (Mourning Cloaks especially) and all will hang around mud holes, a characteristic called 'puddling.' They will look to the mud as a source for mineral salts.

It takes a little thought to design a garden for butterflies, but the time spent can turn your yard into a home for many different species. They will offer you hours of enjoyment, and in turn, you are helping the environment.

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