Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Butterfly Gardening To Renew Your Sense of Wonder

There is something about a butterfly that stirs in adults the sense of wonder that children feel. The colors and fluttering wings excite us and invite a closer look. They seem so ephemeral and free.
But butterflies have a rough time of it. When fields become malls and open spaces become home sites, some habitat is lost. When pesticides are used, they may fall victim. And I can't begin to tell you how many I've washed from my windshield and grill.

Maybe, then, planting a butterfly garden would be the right thing to do. Butterfly gardens help establish new habitats and improve the ecosystem. What is more, they bring these beauties into view so we can experience that lost sense of wonder.
A proper butterfly garden needs the following:
  • Sun. Butterflies enjoy it because the warmth invigorates them. In addition, many of their favorite nectar-producing plants grow best in sunny locations.
  • Flowers. Butterflies need blooms that produce nectar.
  • Host plants. There are two kinds to consider: those that provide a place to lay eggs, and those that provide food for caterpillars. Some plants may serve both purposes. You'll have to tolerate chewing damage on them. Better yet, learn to love it.
  • Water. A very shallow puddle or spot of mud that is consistently wet will be much appreciated.
  • The butterfly garden must also be pesticide-free.
When designing the butterfly garden, remember that it is for them, not just for you. So you may have to abandon some of your aesthetic preferences. You see, some of the best nectar plants are not all that attractive. Many are, in fact, weeds. Butterflies don't care what the garden looks like. A colorful jumble will suit them just fine. And, like most of us, they just can't get enough of a good thing. You'll need to either plant your butterfly garden apart from your vegetable or flower garden, or learn to look at some weeds through different eyes.

Butterflies seem to prefer plants native their local habitat, so consider them first. This means you may want to do a little research to determine which native plants to include. But if you don't have the time or inclination to do so, worry not. Butterflies will adapt just fine to non-native plants.
Here is a list of some native plants that attract butterflies:
  • Asclepias incarnata, A. syriaca, A. tuberosa. These are commonly known as Milkweed or Butterfly Weed.
  • Aster spp. These include the New England Asters, Michaelmas Daisys, and many others.
  • Bidens spp. Commonly known as Tickseed.
  • Clethra alnifolia. This lovely shrub produces long-lasting clusters of sweet-smelling flowers that you'll also enjoy.
  • Echinacea purpurea. Coneflower. Many new varieties of this native beauty are often introduced, but 'Magnus' and 'White Swan' are very reliable.
  • Eupatorium spp. These include Queen-Of-The-Meadow and Joe Pye Weed. Both are stately additions to the perennial garden.
  • Itea virginica. Also known as Virginia Sweetspire. With a lot of ornamental potential, it begs to be included in the landscape.
  • Liatris spp. Blazing Star. It's a favorite for cutting and flower arrangements.
  • Lobelia spp. Cardinal Flower (L. cardinalis) is one of my favorites.
  • Verbena spp. This genus includes natives, non-natives and naturalized species. Brazilian Verbena, Homestead Purple, Homestead Pink, Peruvian Verbena, Ron Deal and others.
  • Vernonia noveboracensis. Also known as New York Ironweed.
Here is a list of some non-native plants that attract butterflies:
  • Asclepias curassavica. Another known as Butterfly Weed.
  • Gomphrena globosa. Globe Amaranth.
  • Lantana spp. Often grown as annuals in colder climates, they survive as perennials in southern states. New Gold is extremely popular, but other good ones include Miss Huff, Trailing Purple, etc.
  • Mentha spp. Mint. Many are available and are as delicious to humans as to butterflies.
  • Pentas lanceolata. These are treated as annuals in northern states, but grow as perennials in warmer climates.
  • Tagetes patula. Marigolds.
  • Tithonia spp. Mexican sunflower.
  • Zinnia. This delightful annual needs no introduction. So easy a child can grow them.
As I mentioned earlier, butterflies need host plants for food and a place to lay their eggs. Here is a short list.
  • Antirrhinum majus. Snapdragon. Buckeye butterflies love them. Plant some for yourself elsewhere.
  • Asclepias spp. Milkweed and Butterfly Weed. These do triple duty. Butterflies enjoy the nectar, they provide cover for eggs, and caterpillars eat them. Monarchs are particularly fond of Asclepias.
  • Parsley, Dill, Fennel. Black Swallowtail caterpillars will do a number on them. Plant some for yourself, too, in another location.
  • Cornus florida. Dogwoods are beneficial for Spring Azures.
  • Humulus lupulus. Hops. These are as useful for Red Admiral butterflies as they are for brewmasters.
  • Lindera benzoin. Spicebush is a lovely native with ornamental possibilities. Makes a good tea, too. Spicebush Swallowtails love 'em.
  • Prunus serotina. Wild Cherry. Painted Lady butterflies prefer them.
  • Salix spp. Willows are attractive to Viceroys.
  • Viola spp. Pansies and Violets entice Great Spangled Fritillarys.
In addition to various plant selections, there are also other ways to be kind to butterflies. Nectar feeders attract them. The added advantage is that you can position them close to your windows so you can get a better look at the little creatures. Children, of course, will be captivated. I can't think of a better way to help them learn and appreciate these wonderful gifts of Nature.
When circumstances don't allow for planting host plants (or even if they do), a butterfly house can provide a sheltered place for butterflies to lay their eggs. Besides being eco-friendly, they also look great as decorative objects in the garden.
For more information, visit the following websites:
If you've planted a butterfly garden before, I'd love for you to share your experiences with the rest of us. To do so is easy; just add your comments to this blog!

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