Bringing in the butterflies

By L. A. Jackson


Eastern Tiger SwallowtailSpring is an ideal time for ­gardeners who love ornamental plants to plan for not only a bountiful show of blooms but also butterflies. That’s right—butterflies.

These bright flits of kinetic color are enough to make even the most distracted backyard grower take notice. Stray butterflies will fly into the ­garden just about any time ­during the spring and summer months, but when it comes to finding these ­beautiful winged insects in the ­landscape, the more the merrier! And the best way to bring in more butterflies is to simply offer them something to eat.

This can be done by serving up plants off of butterflies’ Most Preferred List. Mature butterflies go for ­flowering, nectar-producing plants, while their young—caterpillars—prefer to munch on plant foliage.

Nectar-loving adults are drawn to blooming plants, favoring plants with red flowers first, followed by yellows, pinks, whites and purples. Also, they like blossoms that are flat-topped or clustered to allow them to land so they can feed while in park. Call it a fly-in diner, if you will.

What flowers are butterfly ­magnets? Spring bloomers such as primrose, money plant, lilac, sweet William, rock cress and candytuft are great for attracting an assorted variety of adult butterflies in the spring.

In the summer, butterfly weed, bee balm, purple coneflower, butterfly bush, cosmos, lantana, periwinkle, ­lavender, hydrangeas and zinnias are good choices to take over from the spring flowers and continue attracting ­butterflies. Butterflies will flock to fall flowers as well such as sedums, asters, and swamp sunflowers.

The blossoms of many native trees also double as desirable food for adult butterflies. Even weeds will draw these winged beauties into your yard. Clover, henbit, morning glory and dandelion are all native “volunteer” plants that serve as sources for nectar.

The difference between a “weed” and a “native plant” often lies in its desirability in the garden. Many native plants are simply too pretty to not be included in cultivated gardens, and their nectar also attracts adult ­butterflies. Such indigenous lovelies include liatris, black-eyed Susan, ­cardinal flower, coreopsis, Indian ­blanket and ironweed.

Butterfly larvae also like weeds and munch on the foliage of these plants that many gardeners find undesirable; the caterpillars are actually helping with landscape maintenance. Some chew on certain tree leaves as well. Elm, river birch, poplar, willow, dogwood and cherry trees seem to be tops on many of their dining lists.

Interestingly, some butterfly cater­pillars tend to be plant-specific. A good example is butterfly weed. While this native perennial’s nectar is a big ­favorite for many different adult ­butterflies, its foliage is especially sought out by Monarch larvae.

Black Swallowtail caterpillars have a preference to feed on the native golden Alexander and related plants. Golden Alexander is from the Parsley ­family, which includes three other plants young Black Swallowtails ­prefer: the popular garden herbs ­parsley, fennel and dill. Many concerned herbalists coexist with these larvae by either ­picking them off the plants and ­moving them to other greenery, or planting more parsley, fennel and dill than man or beast will ever consume in a summer.

A good way to attract more adult butterflies is to concentrate the right plants in large enough numbers so these fliers can easily see what you have to offer. A clump or two of purple coneflowers won’t effectively do the job, but a massed bed or ­border filled with these plants in full bloom will be a big neon sign that, to ­butterflies, spells “F-O-O-D!”

Another trick is to add shallow dishes of water, wet sand or mud in the garden. You will be surprised how many of these winged beauties will congregate around such ­watering holes! Since butterflies also like sweets, sugar, honey or pieces of fruit can be added to enhance this butterfly bar, but such treats will also catch the attention of ants, wasps and bees.

One more amenity that can appeal to these wonderful winged insects is large, flat rocks placed in an area that receives the morning sun. Butterflies are cold-blooded creatures and will seek out such toasty spots to warm themselves up at the start of a new day.

Of course, if you are committed to bringing in more butterflies to your garden this growing season, one other item you might think about picking up is a good book that identifies the dif­ferent types of butterflies in your region. It can become a fascinating hobby, and, after all, you wouldn’t want to mistake an American Painted Lady for a Great Spangled Fritillary, would you?