Invite butterflies into your landscape

Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.  |  1/4/2011 1:10:39 AM

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For Release On Or After 07/09/10

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

Not satisfied with the occasional, chance appearance of butterflies, many gardeners are creating butterfly gardens with plants specially chosen to invite them into the landscape. A large number of beautiful native butterflies will visit gardens that provide for their needs.

Louisiana is on the migration route of the monarch butterfly. This butterfly winters in Mexico and crosses the Gulf of Mexico to migrate to the northern United States in spring and then travels south back down to Mexico in the fall. So, many Louisiana gardeners plant milkweed in their gardens to provide for the monarch’s needs.

To plant a butterfly garden properly, you need a general understanding of the life cycle of butterflies. They pass through four distinct stages – egg, caterpillar (larvae), chrysalis (pupae) and butterfly (adult). Although they may look very different at each stage, it is important to understand that a caterpillar is not a different creature, it is simply a baby butterfly or moth.

Although some of the butterfly caterpillars, such as gulf fritillary larva, appear to be heavily armed with spines, none is able to sting. Moths are closely related to butterflies and also have a caterpillar stage. Some moth caterpillars do sting.

Butterfly caterpillars feed voraciously on plant leaves. Each type of butterfly caterpillar will feed specifically only on certain plants, and the adult female butterfly will lay her eggs only on those plants that will properly nourish her offspring. Monarch butterfly caterpillars only feed on milkweed plants, for instance. Gulf fritillary caterpillars prefer species of passion vines; the parsley worm, which grows up to be the Eastern black swallowtail, feeds on parsley, dill and fennel; sulfur butterflies lay their eggs on cassias; and the preferred food of long-tailed skipper larva is bean leaves. The orange dog caterpillar, which feeds on citrus trees and disguises itself to look like bird droppings, grows up to be the spectacular giant swallowtail butterfly.

Gardeners plant these plants, called larval food plants, in the hopes that butterflies will lay eggs on them and that they will be consumed by caterpillars. This is one of the few situations where a gardener actually hopes a plant will be eaten by caterpillars. Needless to say, the use of pesticides is not permitted in areas dedicated to butterfly gardens.

Remember that caterpillars are picky about the plants they will feed on, and they’ll generally only feed on the larval food plants you provide for them. You do not need to be concerned that they will attack and damage other types of plants in your landscape.

Adult butterflies feed primarily on nectar from flowers. Many commonly grown garden flowers are attractive to butterflies, and the more kinds of flowers you include in your garden, the better chances you’ll have to attract butterflies.

Certain nectar plants, however, seem to be especially irresistible to butterflies. Some of the best are butterfly weed, coneflower, wild ageratum, butterfly bush, lantana, pentas and salvias.

Don’t be disappointed if at first you don’t see butterflies flocking to your yard in droves. Remember, a butterfly garden is an invitation, not a command performance. The more plants you put in, and the longer you stick with it, the more likely you are to see butterflies. After a while, spotting a butterfly will be more common. And the first time you find caterpillars on your milkweed, parsley or passion vine, the happy excitement makes it all worthwhile.

In addition to plants, other features are helpful in attracting these delights of color and movement. Butterflies cannot drink from open water, so a shallow pan filled with pebbles can be placed in the garden to be filled with water whenever you irrigate or it rains.

Some butterflies like the juice from fruit, so rather than throwing away leftovers of fermenting fruit or the peelings, place them in the garden for a few days. A piece of watermelon or rind is a tasty treat.

Basking spots are also important. As insects, butterflies are cold-blooded and depend on the warmth of the sun for energy to maintain proper body temperature. Locate your butterfly garden in an area that receives the morning sun and warms up early. This is especially important in spring and fall when nights are cool. Most larval and nectar food plants grow best in sites that get six to eight hours of direct sun a day.

Butterfly gardens strive to attract, welcome and nurture these fascinating and lovely insects that add so much to the pleasures of gardening. With their abundance of bright, colorful flowers, these gardens also can contribute to the beauty of the overall landscape. Don’t forget to include children in the process. They are delighted by the changing stages in a butterfly’s life cycle, and it’s a great way for them to learn more about nature.

Rick Bogren



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