by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, July 23, 1999

Butterflies are a special treat in the garden. Whether they are sipping nectar from flowers, using their wings as solar collectors to warm themselves for flight on a cool morning, or flying around looking for a mate or an appropriate plant on which to lay eggs, butterflies bring joy to the beholder. They're so beautiful and graceful that it's no surprise that gardening to attract butterflies is growing in popularity.

Many butterfly species are common in this region. A count in Derby found 25 different species in just one day. It is easy to attract these butterflies to your yard with the appropriate plants. You can grow them in a patio planter, a garden or in the whole yard. To have success for the long term, however, it helps to know about the habits and life cycle of butterflies. Learning more about these beautiful creatures, and their needs, encourages us to create a more livable environment for all of us.

The adult butterfly emerges from a chrysalis. After filling its wings with fluid from its body, and warming and drying them in the sun, a butterfly goes off to find food and an appealing member of the opposite sex. The male emits a hormone which attracts and excites the female. After a courtship dance which seems to help members of the same species recognize each other, the mating lasts from 20 minutes to all night, and may include connected flight and feeding. The female then searches for an appropriate plant on which to lay her eggs. She may continue to lay eggs for days or even for weeks.

Of course, all this flying, dancing and lovemaking takes a lot of energy. Butterflies get their energy by drinking nectar from a variety of flowers. By encouraging those that grow wild, and planting those which don't, we can entice butterflies to visit. Beautiful weeds such as asters, goldenrods, daisies, milkweed, Queen Anne's lace, jewelweed, thistles and Joe Pye weed attract butterflies and are easy to grow. Common shrubs such as lilac, spicebush, privet, butterfly bush and honeysuckle, as well as the perennials purple coneflower, rudbeckia, phlox, mint, clover and alfalfa are also excellent nectar sources. Besides attracting butterflies, many of these have a delightful fragrance. I'm especially fond of the smell of milkweed, butterfly bush and lilacs. This time of year, the asters and goldenrods put on enough of a show that we almost don't need butterflies.

Once we've attracted the adults with nectar, we need to turn our attention to providing for the next generation. Butterflies can have two or more broods each year.

When the egg hatches, the tiny, young larva needs something to eat. Fortunately, most of the time, its mamma deposited her eggs on an appropriate food plant. The larva eats the leaves of this plant until it grows big enough to pupate.

Gardeners who have grown parsley, fennel, dill or carrots, all related plants, have probably seen a green caterpillar, which as it got bigger, consumed an enormous amount of the plant they intended to eat. These caterpillars are so well camouflaged, however, that it frequently seems as if the leaves of these plants just disappear. I recently learned that we should resist the temptation to squish this insect. Just let it eat a little more, pupate and it will emerge as a beautiful swallowtail butterfly.

So, we should plant a few extra members of the carrot family to encourage these swallowtails to emerge from our garden and fly off to feed on milkweed, purple loosestrife or phlox, and get on with the business of reproduction.

There are many other kinds of butterflies, each with special needs for nectar and food plants, although some plants are popular with several species.

Butterflies appreciate a source of water or a bit of mud. They frequently need still another type of plant to rest on at night, a plant that allows them to effectively become invisible to the many creatures which would like to eat them while they sleep.

Bring butterflies into your yard by creating a habitat for them.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

Useful books:

The Butterfly Garden: Turning Your Garden, Window Box or Backyard into a Beautiful Home for Butterflies, by Mathew Tekulsky, 1985, Harvard Common Press.

Butterfly Gardening Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden, by Xerces Society / Smithsonian Institution, 1990, Sierra Club Books. The Xerces Society can be contacted at 10 Southwest Ash Street, Portland, OR 97204.

This page and its contents are copyright © 1999 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.