A World Aflutter
Entice butterflies to your garden with plants they—and their hungry offspring—love
By Meleah Maynard
Photo by Greg Ryan & Sally Beyer
My, how times have changed. These days, it seems just about everybody’s itching to have at least a little garden space. And with the urge to dig and plant has come the desire to attract butterflies—lots of them. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to create a garden that will entice butterflies into paying you a visit.
Most butterflies only live for a few weeks. During that time, the ethereal creatures spend the bulk of their energy seeking out flowering plants from which to sip life-giving nectar. Gardeners who plant flowers they love will likely attract butterflies that love them, too.
Notch up the hospitality by doing a little research to find out which butterfly species are common in your area. Then, plan your garden to include flowering plants those butterflies—and their offspring, caterpillars—simply can’t pass up, a few places to sunbathe, and some water. Before long, you’ll see a steady stream of fluttering visitors who will repay your generosity by helping your garden grow. Like bees and birds, butterflies are vital garden pollinators, transporting tiny specks of pollen from one plant to another as they flit about.
Planning a butterfly garden depends a lot on the site you’re working with and your own personal tastes. Red Wing gardener, Terry Yockey, cultivates about half of her family’s two-acre lot. During the last nine years, she has kept two goals in mind while working to transform her weedy, sloping backyard into gardens she can enjoy year round. “The first thing I think about is butterflies,” she says, pointing toward a colorful patch of wild meadow down a short slope off the side of her house. “The second thing is fragrance.”
In addition to her more stylized perennial gardens, Yockey planted her “butterfly meadow” shortly after she moved to Red Wing. Today, milkweed, purple coneflower, Joe Pye weed, black-eyed Susan, and goldenrod attract a wide range of butterflies that, when it’s hot, often seek shelter in the shade of a nearby tree. “Sometimes, I’m just amazed by how many butterflies are out here,” Yockey says. “Different plants are more popular from year to year. This year’s favorite seems to be Joe Pye weed.”
Mindful of the fact that butterflies depend both on “nectar” plants for their own food and “host” plants for their hungry, caterpillar offspring, Yockey included plenty of milkweed in her wildflower gardens. “People don’t really think of milkweed as being a very nice flower,” she says. “But it’s an important food source for monarchs and their caterpillars, and I love the way it smells. When it blooms, you can smell it all over the neighborhood.”
Butterflies lay their eggs on host plants, where food will be handy for newly hatched caterpillars. Most species of butterflies deposit their eggs only on plants their caterpillars will use for food. For example, monarchs choose milkweed, red admirals pick nettles, and black swallowtails go for dill. Caterpillars feed on these larval foods for about two weeks, right up until the time they attach themselves to a leaf or branch, and transform into a chrysalis before emerging as a butterfly.
As you can imagine, all this munching causes a fair amount of damage to the appearance of plants. Gardeners bothered by this chewed-on look, might want to group butterfly host plants in less visible areas. This is fine, as long as you make sure they are not too far from the nectar plants. Don’t use pesticides or herbicides that can drift onto host plants. If possible, leave a few open areas in your yard where butterflies, which are cold-blooded, can soak up some warm sunshine.
Photo by Greg Ryan & Sally Beyer
Two years ago, Gagnon got his Minneapolis garden officially certified as a Monarch Waystation by the Monarch Watch project, run by the University of Kansas. He joined more than 1,000 other backyard gardeners around the country who contribute to the conservation of monarchs by maintaining waystations, gardens packed with both the nectar and host plants monarchs need, and planting along the monarch’s long migration route from Canada and the United States to Mexico. “Any break in the link of miles the monarchs travel can be devastating to them,” says Gagnon. “There used to be a lot of milkweed growing along highways but now they mow it down and it’s really been really hard on monarchs.”
To help out these lovely visitors, Gagnon plants loads of milkweed, which monarchs rely upon most, as well as New England asters and liatris. “Asters and liatris, particularly Liatris ligulistylis, are important nectaring plants for monarchs because they bloom in August after what is usually the monarch’s last egg-laying of the season,” Gagnon explains.
Nearby, additional curving beds offer purple phlox, fennel, dill, and parsley for swallowtails. As Gagnon describes the way swallowtails love to hover and graze on dill, one swoops in and swiftly lays three tiny, glistening eggs on the leaf of a dill plant not two steps away. When they hatch, the larvae will be a little brown-black speck that could easily be mistaken for a bird dropping. “Pretty soon they’ll be little black-and-gold striped caterpillars,” says Gagnon. “It’s fun to watch them eat because they just grab the plant, especially dill, and start eating until it’s gone.”
For those who aren’t ready to commit their yards entirely to butterfly conservation, or lack the space or desire to create a wildflower meadow, never fear. Carrol Henderson and his wife, Ethelle, attract many different species of butterflies with the neatly landscaped gardens that border their city-sized backyard in Blaine.
Carrol, who heads the state’s non-game wildlife program, knew he wanted a landscape that would attract wildlife when the couple bought their house more than 30 years ago. As he searched for information on which plants to include in their yard to attract butterflies and birds, he realized there was no book that summed up this information for northern gardeners. So he wrote one, aptly titled, Landscaping for Wildlife (Diane Books, 1994). “The book focuses a lot on butterflies because I know it’s fun to watch them,” says Henderson. “I like how kids can learn a lot about butterflies by watching the cycle of butterflies’ eggs turning into caterpillars and into butterflies again.”
Like Yockey and Gagnon, the Hendersons plant milkweed for the monarchs and lots of butterfly-friendly perennials. But they also stress the importance of planting trees and shrubs butterflies and birds can use for food. Their favorites include Canadian lilacs, wild plums, summersweet, and coralberry. Interspersed among the plants are homemade trellises and tuteurs that support annual vines butterflies love, including morning glories and black-eyed Susan vines. A small pond in one bed provides butterflies with plenty of water to sip. But butterflies can get the water they need if you simply keep an area in your garden moist or put out a shallow bowl filled with wet sand.
The Hendersons also put a lot of energy into planting annuals butterflies are partial to, including zinnias, nasturtiums, petunias, and marigolds. Many of these plants are in containers Ethelle tends on the spacious deck overlooking the backyard. “We plant Mexican sunflowers in the garden every year because butterflies seem to really like those,” says Carrol. “But it’s also nice to have so many plants on the deck because butterflies come right up there while we’re outside. Watching all the activity makes us feel like our yard is a sanctuary for us and for the wildlife.”
Attracting Winged Visitors to Your Yard
If you want butterflies, you’ll have to put up with some unsightly foliage-munching by hungry caterpillars. Happily, different types of caterpillars like different types of plants, so your whole garden isn’t going to become lunch.
Here’s a short list of common caterpillars and their nibbling preferences:
Black swallowtail: dill, carrot, parsley
Painted lady: hollyhock, thistle, sunflower
Red admiral: nettle
Buckeye: snapdragons, false loosestrife
Checkered skipper: hollyhock, mallow
Butterflies are attracted to bright-colored flowers that offer lots of nectar such as Joe Pye weed and purple coneflower. While butterflies visit all kinds of flowers, these are some of their favorite nectar plants:• Aster
• Bee balm
• Butterfly bush
• Butterfly weed
• Globe thistle
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to Midwest Home.