Expect A Beautiful Reward From Butterfly Gardening


July 28, 1991|By Mary Gold

What interest do Winston Churchill and Allview gardener Edwin Gould have in common?

The answer has nothing to do with philosophy or political science, but centers on a fascination with butterflies -- their life cycles, their beauty and the plants they depend on.

Churchill went so far as to cultivate his favorite butterfly, thePeacock, by planting beds of its favorite food, nettles.

Likewise, Gould's study of lepidoptera -- the scientific name for butterfliesand moths -- goes beyond book learning and specimen collecting.

In order to enjoy the color and antics of these "flowers that fly," aspoet Robert Frost called them, Gould maintains plants that attract butterflies to his yard.

Butterfly gardening is, obviously, not new, but interest in it has been rekindled.

The insects have been affected by man's encroachment on their natural habitat. While their absence is not as obvious as that of bears and wildcats, species of insects have been banished from our suburban-urban environment because there is nothing for them to eat and nowhere to reproduce.

But by manipulating just the small environment around our homes slightly, we can reintroduce some part of what's missing.

Butterflies are daintysippers drawn to colorful blooms with scented reservoirs of sweet nectar.

Naturalist and writer Gerald Durrell advises that old-fashioned flowers attract best, as opposed to the "big, blowsy and brash" new types that are relatively scentless.

Gould strives to provide butterflies with a spring-to-fall succession of irresistible colors and scents.

His flower bed not only takes up the entire front yard, it seems to lean forward into the street, catching the attention of anyone who passes by.

Progressing up a fairly steep embankment to the front steps of the house, the garden includes such familiar plantsas peonies, geraniums and day lilies. It also displays many unusual specimens Gould has started from seed, gleaned from exchanges with clubs and acquaintances or purchased from catalogs.

His garden features a 12-foot-high clump of exotic grass that looks like corn stalks.

Higher up is a large datura plant covered with long, white buds, twisted shut, awaiting dusk to open into giant white trumpets that release a penetrating, sweet perfume.

A colorful array of local butterflies, all active from spring to fall, may be lured into a tasty garden.

Both the pipe stem swallowtail (iridescent blue-green) and the yellow-and-brown-patterned tiger swallowtail may drop in.

A darting pearl crescent, its orange wings delicately netted with black, may also establish its territory in a butterfly garden.

The widely recognized monarch butterfly, sometimes considered our national insect, is one of the few migrators that frequent local gardens.

Interestingly, Gould noted, the monarch primarily feeds on poisonous milkweed leaves in its larval stage, a practice that makes it totally unappetizing to bird predators.

Another local butterfly, the viceroy, looks very similar in size and color to the monarch. Although it is completely non-poisonous to birds, its mimicry of the monarch's appearance protects it.

Before starting a butterfly garden, it is wise tostudy which species are found in your neighborhood and what seems toattract them.

Our county library has information on butterflies, lengthy plant lists, conservation techniques, butterfly suppliers andbutterfly societies.

Although each butterfly species may appear to prefer just one type of flower and skips over available nectar in order to get to its favorite, some plants are common to almost all butterfly tastes.

The aptly named butterfly bush (buddleia), available in white, pink or purple, seems a favorite with several kinds of butterflies, including the American painted lady, a lovely species withorange and brown marbled wings.

Many flowers relished by butterflies are, logically, native wildflowers such as the orange-flowered butterfly weed (asclepias tuberosa) and its more plain cousin, the common milkweed.

An eye-catching clear-winged hummingbird moth, one ofthe few moths to feed by day, whirs over lavender bee balm (monarda)and the flat-topped yarrow.

Purple Joe-pye weed, a stately six-footer, ironweed, goldenrod and New England asters all provide late-summer blooms and nectar.

More traditional garden plants tempting to butterflies include zinnias, lantana, petunias and the orange, daisy-like tithonia, as well as such perennials as phlox, lavender, lilac, coreopsis and daisies.

An added attraction for these creatures is a wet spot or puddle in the garden where they can get a cooling drink.

While the flitting perfection of butterflies may be the icing onthe cake of our garden, we must not overlook the fact that these feathery beauties got their strength by existing at one time as, yes, hungry caterpillars.

As many children know, a butterfly's life cycleincludes four different stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis (or pupa) and adult butterfly. Their metamorphoses from ugly duckling to swanis one of their most endearing qualities.

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