Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A. | 4/19/2005 10:28:55 PM
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.
This is understandable, since the mixture of flowers and the fluttering movement of colorful butterflies are one of nature’s most enchanting combinations. As the weather gets warmer and the possibility of frosts diminishes, now is a great time to start planning a butterfly garden.
To plant a butterfly garden properly, you need to have a general understanding of the life cycle of butterflies. They pass through four distinct stage – the egg, caterpillar, chrysalis 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 .
In the caterpillar stage, they are voracious feeders – primarily eating foliage. But each type of caterpillar will feed specifically only on certain plants.
In addition, the adult female butterfly will lay her eggs only on those plants that will nourish her offspring properly.
Monarch butterfly caterpillars will feed only on milkweed plants (Asclepias), and the gulf fritillary caterpillars prefer species of passion vines (Passiflora). 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. And the preferred foods of long-tailed skipper caterpillars are bean leaves. The orange dog caterpillar, which feeds on citrus trees and disguises itself to look like bird droppings, grows up to be the giant swallowtail butterfly.
In the butterfly garden, these plants are planted with the hopes that butterflies will lay eggs on them and that 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 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 your landscape – unless you have larval food plants planted in other locations.
The 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 butterfly garden, the better chance you have of attracting them.
Certain flowers seem to be especially irresistible to butterflies. Some of the best are butterfly weed (Asclepias curassavica), coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), wild ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum), butterfly bush (Buddleia species), lantana (Lantana camara, L. montevidensis), pentas (Pentas lanceolata) and salvias (Salvia species)
Don’t be disappointed if at first you don’t see butterflies flocking to your yard in droves. After all, your 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 excitement will make it all worthwhile.
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 can be placed in the garden to be refilled whenever you water or it rains.
Some butterflies like the juice from fruit, so rather than throwing away leftover fruit, fermenting fruit or fruit peelings, place them in the garden. A piece of watermelon or the rind is a tasty treat for these creatures.
Basking spots also are important. Like all insects, butterflies are cold-blooded 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. This serves dual purpose, since most larval and nectar food plants prefer to grow in a situation that gets six to eight hours of direct sun each day.
Don’t forget to include your children and grandchildren in the enjoyment of the butterfly garden. 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 larve, appear to be heavily armed with spines, none are able to sting.
The next time you go to your local nursery, ask about plants for butterfly gardens. This type of gardening has become so popular that most nurseries carry a good selection of plants appropriate for a butterfly garden.
Butterfly gardens strive to attract, welcome and nurture these fascinating and lovely insects that add so much to the pleasures of gardening. And with their abundance of bright, colorful flowers, these gardens also can contribute to the beauty of the overall landscape.
Get It Growing is a weekly feature on home lawn and garden topics prepared by experts in the LSU AgCenter. For more information on such topics, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit our Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com. A wide range of publications and a variety of other resources are available.