Beckoning The Butterfly

THE REAL DIRT

March 13, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Spring is near; I hear it coming. Downspouts drip non-stop. The ground goes "squish" instead of "crunch." Winter's retreat is slow but certain. The wood stove relaxes its feeding frenzy; ditto the birds at the backyard feeder.

Telltale signs, all.

Gardeners are itching to scratch the soil. I get butterflies thinking about spring. I also get butterflies thinking about butterflies, my favorite harbingers of spring.

To heck with the first robin; I'm awaiting the arrival of a bright orange monarch. The aerial dance of madame butterfly is sweeter than the song of any bird.

What marvelous creatures they are! Winged jewels of red, blue and yellow that float from plant to plant, sipping nectar, delighting gardeners and rousing our cats, who pounce in vain.

Finally, an insect that won't sting, bite or otherwise bedevil man, except in its larval stage. Butterflies beget caterpillars, which beget more butterflies, but only after stuffing themselves with the succulent leaves of their favorite plants.

Small price for keeping butterflies around. Watching them drift around the yard is as relaxing as watching an aquarium. It's a real stress-buster.

Maybe that's why a growing number of homeowners have begun raising plants to woo butterflies -- everything from alyssum to zinnias.

Butterfly gardening is hot: Nationally, three public butterfly gardens have opened since 1988, in Georgia, Florida and California, creating havens for millions of the beautiful winged creatures on the lam from encroaching development.

With little effort, anyone can attract a few monarchs, satyrs or baltimores to their gardens, patios or even windowsills. All it takes is a sunny locale with a windbreak, water and wildflowers.

Many of the butterfly's favorite foods are weeds, including clover, thistle and nettles. Milkweed is a favorite; so are dandelions. Each species of insect has its favorite plants, and a few will defend them against intruders, including man.

All butterflies love mud puddles, especially young, single males, who gather over stagnant pools like bachelors at watering holes.

Scruffy, sprawling landscapes are a turn-on for butterflies, not gardeners. Fortunately, the insects are also drawn to more stylish plants such as candytuft, coneflowers and cosmos; hollyhocks, hyssop and heliotrope; and petunias, passionflowers and phlox.

Some plants provide nectar for the adult insects. (Butterflies sip through two mouth tubes resembling drinking straws.) Other flora are food for the young. Many butterflies lay eggs only on plants that can sustain their offspring, such as carrots, parsley and sweet peas. Caterpillars rarely eat enough to destroy the plants.

If growing space is limited, consider potted plants like nasturtiums and lantanas to coax the creatures onto the patio.

Give butterflies a reason to stick around. Plan the garden so that each season yields some of their favorite flowers. Example: chives that blossom in spring, followed by coreopsis, borage and late-blooming sedums.

Studies show that butterflies prefer certain colors. Generally, they flip over pink, purple, blue and yellow flowers. Some species are drawn only to those shades that match their wing colors.

Consider shrubs and trees in a butterfly garden, including the buddleia or butterfly bush, whose fragrant blossoms drive insects wild. Also, lilac, honeysuckle, privet and wisteria. Butterfly larvae love nibbling on the leaves of dogwoods, poplars and apple trees, whose rotting fruit is also prized by thirsty adults.

You can also grow willow trees to ensure the appearance of butterflies. Certain caterpillars eat the leaves, then roll themselves up in them to hibernate in winter.

Begin the butterfly watch on calm, sunny spring days when temperatures routinely surpass 60 degrees.

Some butterflies do more than just beautify the garden. The harvester hunts and eats aphids. Actually, all butterflies help service the landscape as part of nature's food chain. They themselves are hunted by birds and toads, two of my favorite gardening allies.

Butterflies are pretty, but toads are more essential to my garden as the season wears on and the vermin arrive.

Come spring, I'll take Beauty; come summer, it's the Beast.

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