Animal attraction Create a butterfly garden and the beauties flutter by

July 17, 1993|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Contributing Writer

Plant the right flowers, shrubs and trees and they will come. The monarchs, swallowtails, sulphurs, American coppers, gray hairstreaks, hackberrys, painted ladies, red admirals, skippers, mourning cloaks, fritillaries, question marks, little wood satyrs, cabbage whites -- all butterflies -- will both enjoy and enhance a Maryland garden.

There are 524 types of butterflies east of the Mississippi, says Rob Mardiney, director of education at the Irvine Natural Science Center in Stevenson, and the Maryland gardener can attract a fair representation of them.

With specialty gardens -- water gardens, ornamental grasses, shade gardens -- proliferating these days, this is one flight of gardening fancy that seems to have captured a great many devotees. For the time-conscious, it's a perfectly suited specialty garden: It requires no special space, time or energy. And butterfly gardeners need only minimal expertise to achieve their goal.

Two important criteria that flowers need to attract butterflies, advises Mr. Mardiney, are a place to land, such as the flat head of Queen Anne's lace, and nectar.

A butterfly can't hover very long, so it may pass up the deep trumpet-shaped flowers, such as gladiola or lily -- even though they're loaded with nectar -- for a flower it can settle on and savor. But some butterflies, such as the silver spotted skipper, have long proboscises with which to reach the nectar of a deep flower. Another requirement is a hedge or wall to protect the butterflies from strong winds so that they can fly.

According to Judy Ruffin, a naturalist photographer and lecturer in Philadelphia, top butterfly attracting flowers are: any of the milkweeds, butterfly weed (which is related to milkweed), coreopsis, purple cone flower, monarda, common sedum, black-eyed Susan and aster.

The butterfly weed, coreopsis, cone flower and monarda bloom from late June through much of July; the black-eyed Susan begins blooming a little later and the sedum and asters usually bloom in August and early September. They are perennials (plants that come up year after year), so their blooming time is limited compared to annuals (plants that die off after one season), which bloom all summer.

Annuals that attract butterflies include zinnias, petunias, ageratum, scabiosa and cosmos. A bonus connected to these plantings is that they're all likely to attract the ruby-throated hummingbird, too. Many butterflies also like clover, the blossoms of herbs and honeysuckle.

Shrubs that draw lepidoptera include azalea and rhododendron, which bloom in the late spring, and butterfly bush and sweet pepperbush, which bloom in mid-summer. Abelia, a shrub that will bloom from July until the first hard frost, is a sure-fire lure. Attracting trees include dogwoods, which bloom in the spring, chokecherries, buckeyes and tulip poplars, (late spring) and lindens (early summer). These are all plants that have flowers, ergo nectar.

These perennials, annuals, shrubs and trees can be purchased at various nurseries or through catalogs; or this time of year a gardening friend may be willing to part with some perennials which have become invasive.

Ms. Ruffin says that butterflies don't usually appear in the Baltimore area from the south until the temperature is about 60, usually late April. They need sun and warmth in order to fly and bask by turning their wings toward the sun. The only butterfly that lives year round in the area is the mourning cloak, which has dark wings, blue dots and a yellow stripe around the edge. It hibernates (under loose bark, in log piles, in the crevices of buildings), and has the longest life span by far of any butterfly, sometimes as long as 11 months, says Ms. Ruffin. Adult mourning cloaks feed on willows, aspens and hackberry, an important distinction.

For while many butterflies feed on nectar of the flowers that are blooming now, they have already spent their larval period (two to four weeks) munching on the leaves of trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs and vegetables, which are called the host plants. A butterfly flits from flower to flower while the larva, of course, isn't very mobile. Caterpillars, depending on their species, lay from two to 500 eggs, but there are so many predators -- birds, parasitic wasps, the bot fly -- that they don't destroy much and often don't live to become butterflies.

Ms. Ruffin adds that in the spring, birds time the hatching of their eggs to coincide with the emergence of many insects and caterpillars -- "natural control at work." Nevertheless, she admits that the black swallowtail caterpillar still has been known to decimate dill. Some larvae like nettles, but you probably don't want their stingers in your garden.

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