Gardening for Butterflies
After my post on the Monarch butterfly, I think it’s worthwhile to discuss the other butterflies and moths we may be lucky enough to encounter, and how to garden for them.
Without caterpillars, there are no butterflies
We could all plant parsley… The black swallowtail (pictured above) also likes carrots, fennel, dill, and there are other lookalike butterflies that are happy with sassafrass and dutchman’s pipevine.
Probably the most important thing that we can do, is identify the butterflies that are likely to visit, and then research their host plants, and either plant them, or stop trying to eradicate them. Many of the weeds that we’ve been pulling out of the flower beds are actually butterfly host plants!
There are long lists of butterfly plant hosts
- gardenweb.com I think that a list without pictures is difficult to use.
- dallas butterflies dot com shows the butterflies, so all we have to do is find pictures of the plants…
- Florida butterflies without pictures, difficult to use.
- butterfly website dot com
These lists are far from complete, and paying attention to what the butterflies use as a host plant in our own yards pays dividends… for example, on the butterfly website dot com, I saw that they list a coupla plants for the buckeye butterfly (Snapdragon, Loosestrife), neither of which grow in my garden.
At my house, the buckeye uses agalinas purpurea and toadflax, a couple of natives that might get pulled for weeds by another gardener.
The toadflax is a cool weather annual, which dies before summer even starts, agalinas is a hot weather annual, and the buckeye has an extended season by using one in the cool weather, and the other in the heat.
Another example of the ‘weeds’ that the butterflies use is the passionflower vine. Here in Georgia, passionflower is ubiquitous. it grows in a tangled mess everywhere… and still… those butterflies are spectacular.
Another common weed here in Georgia is coffee weed.
Coffee weed has attractive flowers, improves the soil and grows caterpillars, but people pull it out because it wasn’t something they bought at the nursery.
from the idig my garden forums
I always share my parsley and dill with the swallowtail butterfly larvae – I just saw a newly emerged butterfly yesterday – it warmed my heart.
I don’t even kill the tomato hornworm – I throw it into the woods – I like the huge moth that it turns into.
I hate to say it, but “VA Gardener” just condemned the tomato worm to a painful death.
Tomato worms have other host plants besides tomatoes and peppers, but they aren’t able to eat random weeds.
Most caterpillars have specific dietary requirements… if you attempt to change their diet, they will likely starve rather than eat anything that isn’t in the specific group of plants that constitute “host plants” for the particular butterfly or moth.
Datura wrightii is another plant that the tomato hornworm will eat.
When there’s caterpillars on our food plants, there may be a way to live with them… by finding a suitable host weed…
One answer, is that the manduca sexta moth is part of a very large family of moths, that all have similar caterpillars, and very exciting behaviour in the garden.
Other ways to attract butterflies
In many articles, there are discussions about fruit and piddling.
I’m kinda finicky about the fruit concept. Leaving open fruit out for the butterflies seems like something that I’d just have to clean up later. I’ll add unusable fruit to the compost bin… let the butterflies find it there.
As far as piddling goes… I spread a lot of horse manure….
When I first started my sand-hill garden, the butterflies showed up… It was funny to see the butterflies come in search of my truck full of horse-droppings… Not a flower in site, but plenty of butterflies!
I’m not sure where those pictures are anymore…
The point is, that most of us have seen the butterflies all gathered around wet soil, and some true believers attempt to re-create that in their gardens, by leaving soil in a container that holds water… simple enough if there’s an extra bowl around… but if you’ve got a fish pond with a drain area, or have watered the garden recently, totally unnecessary effort.
Growing flowers for the butterflies
It’s no big secret that butterflies like flowers… but… some flowers are better than other flowers.
Those showy new cultivars may not be the best thing to plant in the butterfly garden. There’s something about the hybridizing process that seems to have left the butterfly out…
Not only have the plant breeders bred scentless flowers, there’s no nectar in them either. It would be like teasing a hungry person with a picture of a meal!
It’s best to grow plants suited to our area. In Georgia, Lantana is an excellent choice.
In Australia, lantana is a serious problem, and in a temperate area, lantana wouldn’t over-winter…
I suggest using common sense, when choosing flowers for the butterfly garden, and avoiding known invasive plants, while seeking out plants that grow without excess efforts.
It’s funny when the butterflies can’t tell the weeds from the flower bed…
People often talk about providing flowers with a large landing pad like these zinnias and echinacea…
While the butterflies do use such plants, I don’t notice that the butterflies prefer them…
Do you garden for butterflies? What are your favorite methods for attracting butterflies?
One more thing….
Never ever use poisons in the butterfly garden!