From the Garden: Butterfly Gardening

By Erin Breglia

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.


Fall 2018

Volume 36 , Number 4

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