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A Monarch butterfly on a cosmos blossom.
Nice to meet you
Little pot with dill herb
Milk Weed Plant
Saturday, September 7, 2013
“The butterfly is a flying flower,
The flower a tethered butterfly.”
— Ponce Denis Ecouchard Le Brun
I love gardens that support a population of wildlife along with beautiful plants, and one of my favorite types of gardens is a butterfly garden.
Butterfly gardens are very easy to grow, making them suitable for gardeners of all experience levels. Because butterflies are most attracted to native plants, no special gardening skills are needed, and very little time will be required of you to maintain the garden.
This is a garden built to entertain. The sight of a butterfly flitting among the flowers is a simple joy that can bring pleasure to children, and to those of us who are children at heart.
The life cycle
The most successful butterfly gardens will include plants that meet the needs of butterflies during all four stages of their life cycle: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and adult.
Basically, two food types will be required: leaves or other plant parts that serve as host plants for the developing caterpillars, and nectar plants for the winged adults.
After mating, females search for a specific kind of host plant on which to lay eggs. In a few days, caterpillars emerge and begin to eat. When they are fully grown, they shed their skin and change into chrysalises, which are often attached to plant stems and protected by surrounding vegetation. After emerging from the chrysalis, the adult butterfly begins to search for nectar-rich flowers to feed on.
Supplying both nectar and host plants is the key to attracting and keeping a butterfly population.
If you want to attract butterflies, you need to plan your garden around how you will attract them, keep them visiting, and encourage them to reproduce.
This means that you need a variety of nectar-producing plants that bloom throughout the season to ensure that you attract a continuous succession of flying visitors. It is particularly important to have flowers blooming in mid to late summer, as this is the time when most butterflies are active.
There are a few simple rules for choosing plants. First, pick natives, as data show that natives support more butterfly species than plants introduced from other locations.
As a general rule, choose flowers with multiple florets that produce lots of nectar. These flowers can grow on plants, shrubs, vines or trees. Avoid double flowers, as these are often bred for their showy appearance and not for producing nectar.
Butterflies are also drawn to bright colors, so pick purple, blue, yellow, white and pink flowers to populate your garden. A very important rule is to refrain from pesticide use whenever possible, as pesticides applied improperly or at the incorrect time can kill butterflies.
Annuals work well in butterfly gardens, as they bloom continuously throughout the season, producing a steady supply of nectar, but many perennials will also be visited regularly by butterflies.
Cosmos, French marigolds, heliotrope, impatiens, verbena and zinnias are good choices for annuals.
Coneflowers, coreopsis, black-eyed Susans, butterfly weed, mums and asters are good choices for perennials. Flowering shrubs like azalea, lilac and butterfly bush will attract butterflies, too.
Butterflies prefer a sunny garden for nectar flowers, but if you don’t have full sun available, you can use a partially shaded area.
Butterfly caterpillars can’t travel far to find their own food, so the female butterfly locates and lays her eggs on the type of plant that the caterpillar will use as food after it hatches.
Many native trees and plants found around your yard are likely serving as host plants for caterpillars, with specific varieties of butterflies preferring specific species of plants.
Mourning cloaks choose willow, aspen, cottonwood and elm trees. Painted lady butterflies like thistle, hollyhock and sunflower. Black swallowtails prefer dill, parsley, fennel and carrot, while monarchs choose milkweed.
Caterpillars will not survive if the egg doesn’t hatch on a plant that will sustain it. So, make the distance short between host and nectar plants, either planting them together, or planting nectar plants near existing hosts. If you do not provide host plants, you’ll have fewer butterflies in your garden.
Be prepared for heavy eating on your host plants, and if this bothers you, locate them in a place where visibility is limited. Don’t remove dead foliage or flowers during the season, as these may harbor eggs or developing butterflies.
Butterflies prefer to feed and lay their eggs in sheltered areas, where they won’t be buffeted by the wind and rain. Flowering shrubs or trees can serve a dual purpose of providing nectar and a windbreak. Fences and vines will also provide protection, as will tall plants at the back and sides of your garden.
Consider creating a mud puddle or keeping a bowl of wet sand in your garden to encourage puddling. Although butterflies get most of their nutrition from flower nectar, nectar lacks some important nutrients that butterflies need for reproduction. By sipping moisture from mud puddles, butterflies take in salts and minerals from the soil.
Butterflies can’t drink from open water, so place a shallow dish at ground level, fill it with sand mixed with yard soil and keep it damp.
Butterflies also need an area in the sun to warm their wing muscles so they can fly, so place a flat rock in a sunny spot to create a basking area.
Provide both food and shelter, and you can prolong a butterfly’s stay in your garden and encourage reproduction of more flying flowers. Then place your furniture nearby so you can enjoy the show.
Come visit my blog at blogs.roanoke.com/downtoearth/ to learn more about attracting butterflies to your garden.
Karen Hager’s column runs every other Saturday in Extra.
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