How to befriend the butterfly

Gardeners can help the delicate insects in all stages of life by growing plants that provide food and shelter for them

In The Garden

July 14, 2002|By Olwen Woodier | Olwen Woodier,NEW YORK TIMES SYNDICATE

In case you didn't know, butterflies are in trouble.

"Butterflies desperately need our help," says butterfly breeder Rick Mikula, author of the award-winning Family Butterfly Book and owner of Hole-in-Hand Butterfly Farm in Pennsylvania. "The destruction of habitat is killing butterflies. The more asphalt we lay, the more wildflowers we replace with hybrids and ornamentals, and the more insecticides we spray, the fewer the wings that will fill the sky."

In an effort to reverse butterfly loss, Mikula breeds, raises and releases butterflies. He also creates butterfly habitats for parks, zoos and gardens worldwide.

Out of the 17,000 butterfly species fluttering about in the world, 780 dwell in the United States and Canada. Some have names that are evocative of their beautiful wing patterns and iridescent colors -- painted lady, red admiral, tiger swallowtail, great purple hairstreak.

You can entice them by planting a variety of nectar-rich flowers in their favorite colors. However, while butterflies will sip nectar from many different flowers, they will stay and lay their eggs only if you include the native plantings that will provide food for their larvae and overwintering places for eggs and pupae.

What butterflies crave

Whether your yard is large or small, or your garden on a patio or a balcony, there are many ways you can turn your space into a butterfly haven.

Sunny locations will attract more butterflies. However, some butterflies will also visit flowers growing in the dappled sunlight of woodland gardens.

Place butterfly plantings in areas protected from wind -- near a wall, woodpile or a clump of trees. Such places will also provide shelter for butterflies on rainy days. Plant a mix of native and old-fashioned annuals and perennials.

Such a continuous show of flowers will provide nectar from the moment the first butterflies arrive in spring until the last ones depart or hibernate in fall. Choose flowers with clustered and flat-topped blossoms in shades of yellow and purple (lavender, mauve, magenta), white, blue, pink and red. Examples include annuals such as cosmos, heliotrope and verbena and perennials such as bee balm, dianthus and yarrow.

Choose plants of varying heights. By doing this, you will help to slow down butterflies that might otherwise zip though your garden.

Whether they are just flitting through, feeding on nectar or laying eggs, butterflies fly at different heights. Those searching for nectar flit quickly from flower to flower. When getting ready to lay eggs, they float slowly with tails and feet almost touching the plants.

And how do you tell if they are just passing through? They fly high and disappear fast. Plant host-specific native trees, wildflowers, flowering weeds and grasses. Including plants that also provide food for butterfly larvae will turn your garden into a thriving butterfly habitat.

To know which host plants to select, you will need to do some sleuthing on the species that breed in your region. Good places to start are county extension offices, regional native plant societies and Audubon chapters, and the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program.

"Although butterflies take nectar from many flowers, they have specific needs regarding the plants that can provide food for their larvae," said Craig Tufts, the National Wildlife Federa-tion's chief naturalist and director of the Backyard Habitat Program. "An example of this is the monarch butterfly. Before the monarch will lay its eggs, it has to find a habitat with milkweed, because that is the host plant specifically eaten by its caterpillars."

Other larval-host examples include: alfalfa, clovers, vetch, lupine and other legumes, which attract blues and sulphurs. Carrot and celery foliage, fennel, parsley, dill and Queen Anne's lace provide food for Eastern black swallowtail larvae.

Cherry, apple, plum, willow, birch and tulip poplar provide larval food for the Eastern tiger swallowtail, viceroy and red-spotted purple.


Make your garden a hospitable place for all stages of their life cycle by providing places for eggs, pupae and adult butterflies to overwinter. Most adult butterflies have a short lifespan of anywhere from three days to 10 days. However, those that migrate to warmer regions in winter or hibernate in woodpiles, behind shutters or under loose bark can live up to 10 months.

Egg clusters and pupae will spend the winter attached to twigs and stems of host trees, wildflowers and meadow plants.

In fact, creating a mini-meadow will provide even more overwintering possibilities and help to ensure a proliferation of next year's adult butterflies. Tufts is emphatic when it comes to cleaning up garden beds or mini-meadows in the fall -- you don't touch the vegetation in designated butterfly habitats.

"Don't mow or cut back the stalks until late spring; otherwise, you'll destroy eggs and hibernating pupae," he warns.

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