Butterfly Gardening

Daniel Gill  |  3/19/2015 8:59:07 PM

Butterfly in the garden

Butterfly

Imagine a garden full of beautiful flowers. Now, add the fluttering movement and brilliant color of butterflies and you have one of nature’s most enchanting combinations.

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. And with the continued loss of natural habitat to development, butterfly gardens help provide urban niches where native butterflies can live and breed.

To properly plant a butterfly garden, you need to have a general understanding of the life cycle of butterflies. They pass through four distinct stages: the egg, caterpillar (larva), chrysalis (pupa) 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. (Not all caterpillars grow up to be butterflies. Moths also pass through a caterpillar phase.)

In the caterpillar stage they are voracious feeders, primarily eating foliage. Each type of caterpillar will feed specifically only on certain plants. The female butterfly will only lay her eggs on those plants that will properly nourish her offspring.

The following are excellent larval food plants to include in a butterfly garden. Monarch caterpillars will only feed on milkweed plants, and 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, while Sulfur butterflies lay their eggs on cassias. Bean leaves are the preferred food of long-tailed skipper caterpillars. The orange dog caterpillar, which feeds on citrus trees and disguises itself to look like bird droppings, grows up to be the beautiful giant swallowtail butterfly.

These larval food plants are planted in the hopes that butterflies will lay eggs on them and they will be consumed by caterpillars. This is one of the few situations I can think of 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 the butterfly caterpillars are picky about what plant they will feed on, and will feed specifically on the larval food plants you provide for them. You generally do not need to be concerned that they will attack and damage other plants in you landscape (most of the caterpillars that damage ornamentals and vegetables are moth larva).

The adult butterflies feed primarily on nectar from flowers. Many commonly grown garden flowers are attractive to butterflies, but the more kinds of flowers you include in your garden the better chance you have of attracting them. Certain flowers, however, seem to be especially irresistible to butterflies. Some of the best nectar plants to include in your butterfly garden are Mexican butterfly weed (Asclepias curassavica, also a larval food plant for monarch butterflies), coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), butterfly bush (Buddleia species), lantana (Lantana camara, L. montevidensis), pentas (Pentas lanceolata), zinnias (Zinnia species and hybrids) and salvias (Salvia species).

Don’t be disappointed if at first you don’t see butterflies flocking to your garden in droves. After all, 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 worth while.

In addition to plants, other features are helpful in attracting these delights of color and movement. Drinking water must be in a place that is not deep so the butterflies can comfortably rest and drink. Butterflies cannot drink from open water, so a shallow pan filled with pebbles and just enough water to almost cover the pebbles can be placed in the butterfly garden to be refilled whenever you water or it rains.

Some butterflies like the juice from fruit, so rather than throwing away leftover or spoiled fruit or the peeling, place them in the garden. A piece of watermelon or citrus fruit is a tasty treat.

Basking spots are also important. Butterflies are cold-blooded insects and depend on the warmth of the sun for energy to maintain proper body temperature. Spring and fall are perhaps the most important times in the absorption of the sun’s energy since night time and morning temperatures may be low. Locate your butterfly garden in an area that receives the morning sun and warms up early. Most larval food plants and nectar plants prefer to grow in a situation that gets six to eight hours of direct sun a day.

Don’t forget to include your children and grandchildren in the process. Kids are delighted by the changing stages in a butterfly’s life cycle, and it is a great way for them to learn more about nature. Although some of the of the butterfly caterpillars, such as Gulf fritillary larva, appear to be heavily armed with spines, none are able to sting.

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.

Prepared by:

Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter
Consumer Horticulturist

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