Need a great theme for next year’s garden? Consider including plants that attract butterflies. Then you can study and enjoy these beautiful creatures as well as the plants that attract and sustain them throughout their life cycle.
Creating a butterfly garden begins by planting flowers that attract butterflies, although convincing these insects to stay requires a little more planning. Butterflies require two types of plants throughout their life cycle: nectar plants for the adult, and food and shelter plants for the egg and larva stages.
Butterflies lay their eggs on host plants that appear to offer safe shelter and a food source. They vary greatly depending on the butterfly species, but common host plants in our area include dill, fennel, Aster spp., Baptisia australis (blue wild indigo), Rudbeckia hirta (blackeyed Susan), Echinacea purpurea (eastern purple coneflower), Senna hebecarpa (American senna), and a variety of milkweeds for the beloved Monarch butterfly. The milkweeds include Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly milkweed), Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed), and Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed).
Once the caterpillar emerges, it will form a chrysalis (butterfly pupa). Depending on the species, the cocoon can be affixed to plants, trees, old wood, or even boards. This stage can last from a few days to a few months. Since insects are cold-blooded, they can hibernate in this stage without being harmed by cold temperatures.
Eventually, an adult butterfly will emerge from the cocoon and look for some nectar plants. Presentation is everything for butterflies — they are attracted to color. The best approach is to plant in groups or “drifts” with mostly perennials of different colors, sizes and textures. Most of the host plants listed above will also double as nectar plants. A few additions might include: zinnias, goldenrods, phlox, Buddleia spp. (butterfly bush), Tithonia sp. (Mexican sunflower), cosmos, thistles, and sedum. Some nectar plants are considered invasive, however, so you might plan creative ways to include them in your garden. Queen Anne’s lace, for example, is a host plant, and several new less-invasive varieties are available. (One specimen has been planted in the Arboretum’s Van Loveland Garden.) Another example is Verbena bonariensis (purpletop vervain or tall verbena), a re-seeding annual in our zone. This purple flowering nectar plant blooms late in the season and is a butterfly magnet – especially loved by the Monarch.
A butterfly garden should provide a source of water, as well as a sunny site to warm wings. It’s also good to have nearby trees to offer shade on hot days.
New York State is home to 187 different butterflies and moths. The State butterfly is the Red-Spotted Admiral or White Admiral. The species has an either-or name because it is “polytypic,” meaning that its coloration depends on where it lives. The White Admiral, which has a white band on its wings, is found throughout the state, while the Red-Spotted Admiral is not found in northern areas. Unlike other common butterflies, they drink liquids from decaying carcasses, animal dung, and rotting plant material. These items may not be what you’d like in your garden, but you may spot Admirals on your compost heap.
So while browsing the seed catalogues during the cold winter months, look for plants that attract and nurture butterflies. You’ll be glad you did.