Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Trees, Shrubs, & Vines

Gardening for Butterflies (page 2 of 2)

by Alice Yarborough

Make Mud Puddles

If your garden has a low, damp area, plant moisture lovers like the rosy-flowered swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Joe-pye weed, forget-me-nots, bee balm, and meadow sweet (Filipendula palmata). Create a shallow puddle to attract swallowtails, blues, sulfurs and other butterflies that enjoy drinking at mud puddles. (They do so to obtain needed salts in their diet.) A sprinkling of table salt and the addition of some manure will increase the puddle's appeal for butterflies. Salt harms plants, however, so use a plastic liner or locate the puddle away from your flower border.

What about Caterpillars?

Butterfly gardeners should not use insecticides and herbicides. Many pesticides kill indiscriminately so doom butterflies or their larvae. My advice? Don't fret too much about caterpillars chewing your prized plants. Natural predators usually keep caterpillar populations under control. Also, the larvae of many butterflies feed only on certain plants and trees.

Mostly, I welcome the occasional presence of butterfly caterpillars in my garden, sometimes carrying one indoors along with a spray of its food plant so that I can observe the miracle of metamorphosis. West coast ladies sometimes lay eggs on the leaves of ornamental mallows. Painted ladies, which instinctively lay their eggs on thistle plants, also find an acceptable substitute in the hairy leaves of borage. Spying dozens of painted lady caterpillars on your borage plants does not mean the end result will be a crowd of butterflies emerging from their cocoons in your garden. Such collections of juicy caterpillar morsels are handy food marts for wasps and hungry birds.

Common Garden Butterflies

Each delicately winged butterfly that graces your garden spent a part of its life in another, less well known form: a larva. To enjoy butterflies in greatest abundance, learn to recognize them whatever their stage of growth. All begin as an egg, which shortly becomes the larval form, a caterpillar. After feeding, caterpillars pupate in a chrysalis, then transform into beautiful butterflies.

Tiger Swallowtail
(Papilio glaucus and P. rutulus) The caterpillar lives in a leaf shelter of its food plant, often trees such as cherry, poplar, birch, and basswood. The large adult is a common sight in gardens.

Monarch
(Danaus plexippus) Birds learn fast to avoid this caterpillar and butterfly. The larvae absorb toxins from their food plant, milkweed.

Buckeye
(Junonia coenia) This caterpillar is gardener-friendly because it eats weeds such as plantain. The "eyespots" on both wings of the adult are used to frighten predators.

Painted Lady
(Vanessa cardui) Colors on the caterpillar vary, but the yellow side stripes are consistent. Because the adults are so adaptable, this species is particularly widespread.

Great Spangled Fritillary
(Speyeria cybele) The butterfly's name comes from the silvery "spangles" visible on the undersides of wings. The favorite food plant of the spiny caterpillar? Violets.

Red Admiral
(Vanessa atalanta) This caterpillar feeds on nettle plants, inside an individual leaf tied up with silk. Adults like to linger on sunny garden paths, and often rest on a wooden structure--or the gardener!

Mourning Cloak
(Nymphalis antiopa) This spiny caterpillar feeds on nettles, elm, willow, poplar, and birch. Look for sunbathing adults on sunny, late-winter days, a sign that spring is near.

Black Swallowtail
(Papilio polyxenes) Just about any plant of the carrot family, such as carrots, dill, and parsley, are fair game for this caterpillar. When you see the butterflies in your garden, you know the caterpillars will follow soon.

Alice Yarborough gardens and writes from her home in Carnation, Washington. This article was adapted from Butterfly Gardens, (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn, NY, 1995; $8).

Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association

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