March 5, 2014: Butterfly Gardening

~by Virginia Rhys Anson, OFS

Quick!  Look out the window!  Do you see it?  Over there near the lilac bush.  It’s a painted lady butterfly.  Isn’t she lovely?

Butterflies are such a joy when they drop in for a visit  These dainty guests just love the sweet nectar from our flower gardens—or the delicacy that they find in a hummingbird feeder.  So refreshing to the soul is watching butterflies ballet from bloom to bloom to bloom.

Closely observing a butterfly’s nectar retrieval prowess can be quite intriguing.  To suck up the nectar, a butterfly uses a long, straw-like tongue–its proboscis–that protrudes from its mouth.  However, unlike we humans, a butterfly does not taste with its “tongue.”  Its taste buds are—no not on the proboscis—on its feet.  How creative is nature?  Or is this God’s sense of humor?  Butterfly feet, or larsi, have glands similar to human taste buds.  When a butterfly discovers a flower with sweet nectar, its proboscis uncoils so that it can drink in the flower’s, or the hummingbird feeder’s, sugary juice.

Attracting butterflies is really quite simple.  They only need three things—food, water, and a place where their young can hide and grow into butterflies.  They are happy in either sunny or shady, wet or dry locations.

Even though butterflies are comfortable in either sun or shade, flowers that provide nectar prefer sun.  And since these insects are so small and delicate, the garden should be placed where it is not exposed to strong winds.  Good luck, Kansas and Wyoming.  Butterflies also need the sun to help them tell direction and to keep their wings warm.  They greatly appreciate a garden that includes a few flat rocks as these will give the butterflies a place to get a suntan.  Well, maybe not a suntan, but they will be able to relax and enjoy the warmth of the sun while drying their wings.

Next to sitting on the deck with a nice cup of tea witnessing butterfly flirtations with zinnias, marigolds, and milkweed, the most enjoyable step in creating a butterfly garden is choosing the nectar plants that will nourish such enchanting friends.  But not just any flower will do.  Butterflies, as do we, like a flower that wafts a sweet fragrance and dons brightly colored petals—red, orange, pink, yellow, purple—like milkweed, purple coneflowers, butterfly weed, asters, lilacs, and daisies.  They also prefer flowers whose blooms form a short tube shape or clusters since these give them a place to perch and rest as they sup.

When planning a butterfly garden, look for flowers that bloom in different seasons—some in spring, others in summer, and a group in fall.  Since most butterflies, sadly, live only six to twenty days, this gives them food throughout their lives.  In milder climates, some may live for six months.  But then, flowers bloom longer in these areas.

Butterflies are not simply attracted to flowers or hummingbird feeders.  They also dine on fruit such as strawberries and herbs like sage, parsley, and dill.  Orange wedges, likewise, would make a tasty treat.  They do, in fact, like to partake of rotting fruit as well.

Butterflies flitting from flower to flower, while such a pleasure to behold, are doing more than simply congregating for a midday treat.  They are also helping the flowers to reproduce.  This pollination happens when a butterfly lands on a flower.  Its feet collect the pollen from one flower, and when it lands on another flower, some of the pollen falls onto the female part of the second flower.  It is sort of like plant sex.  The nectar lures the butterflies to the flowers, and the butterflies then assist the flowers with reproduction by spreading floral pollen.

Water, water, water.  All creatures need water, and butterflies are no exception.  They like to gather around damp areas and shallow water spots.  They not only drink the water, but also take in salt, which their bodies need.  It doesn’t take much to provide them with water, maybe just a small, shallow dish or decorative pond or bird bath.  Then again, puddling may be a more nutritive option.

Puddling?  Odd word.  It seems that mostly male butterflies engage in this activity called puddling.  They drink the water from mud or wet sand in order to take in the water, salt, and minerals that they need.  They have also been known to puddle on dung and animal urination sights.  Really.  No accounting for taste.  Salt seems to be the main attraction.  The sodium appears to be a necessary element for the males for mating and is passed on to their young during procreation. Such a puddle can be easily created by placing sand in a shallow dish and ensuring that it stays moist—not water logged, just moist.  However, even if it does dry up, butterflies can moisten it with their saliva.

Butterflies, as with all creatures, would become extinct if they didn’t have babies.  Thus we come to the last item that we need to provide in a butterfly garden—a place for caterpillars to grow. Butterflies lay their eggs on plant leaves or twigs.  The eggs then hatch caterpillars.  Caterpillars tend to prefer eating the stems and leaves of the plants on which they were birthed.  Red clover and alfalfa make a fancy feast for Sulfur caterpillars while Black Swallowtails like parsley, dill, and fennel.  The Tomato Hornworm prefers, you guessed it, tomato plant leaves.  Monarch and Queen caterpillars enjoy a butterfly’s staple—milkweed.

Milkweed serves a variety of butterfly breeds.  Adults lay their eggs on the plant, and the caterpillars develop within its protection.  Newly hatched caterpillars then feast on the milkweed.  Actually, milkweed works so well for every stage of a butterfly’s life because it contains a chemical that makes its taste repulsive to the butterflies’ natural predators—birds.

Let’s take a short detour and talk Monarch.  Monarch butterfly numbers are dwindling.  A good bit of the cause is that populations of the one and only plant on which they lay their eggs, the milkweed, are declining.  It is, unfortunately, seen as a weed (yes it is milk”weed”) and, as such, is being eliminated.  If the Monarch cannot lay its eggs, it, logically, cannot reproduce.  Monarchs depend on humans to solve a problem that humans are creating.  They depend on us to plant and grow milkweed for their nurseries and to cease killing it.

Butterfly gardens are fun to plant and thrilling to watch.  Give yours the care it needs and be patient since it takes a while for it to really grow to its full potential.  Since patience is not a virtue that comes easily to many humans, a novice butterfly gardener would experience better initial success by growing such plants as zinnias, marigolds, and impatiens, as they are easy to grow.  That said, since we are dealing with native wildlife, it is always preferable to plant flowers that are native to a given area.  Each butterfly species has adapted best to native plants.  However, mixing some non-natives with natives adds more variety and color to the butterfly garden.

Your local Department of Natural Resources can provide more and better ideas as to what butterflies in your particular area prefer.  Likewise, a visit to a meadow will quench your thirst for butterfly antics while acquainting you with their habits and dining preferences.  Be sure to take along a notebook and wildflower book to keep a log of the plants that the butterflies visit.

One last piece of advice.  Do not use herbicides or pesticides in or near a butterfly garden.  Butterflies are small insects, and these can kill them and their caterpillars.

So what are you waiting for? Start planning your butterfly garden.  And when it grows, enjoy watching the butterflies that it attracts.  Relish in the satisfaction of providing a wild species with an ecosystem that helps ensure its survival.  Who knows, you may even be delightfully visited by a hummingbird or two.


Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

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