A unique and beautiful way to conserve the environment is cultivating a butterfly garden. Butterflies are some of the most beautiful, fragile creatures in nature and have sometimes been called “flying flowers.” Butterflies pollinate flower, and both adults and larvae are an important food source for birds, bats, and other wildlife. There are nearly 700 species of butterflies in North America, and in the Chicago area, common butterfly species include the Black Swallowtail, Cabbage White, Eastern Tailed Blue, Spring Azure, the Monarch and many others (Owens, 1991). Attracting butterflies to your yard and garden is easy if you create a habitat that meets the needs the butterflies’ needs for growth and development. Adult butterflies feed on nectar from colorful, fragrant flowers. Suitable habitat also includes shelter from wind and rain, open sunny areas for basking, and mud puddles for water and nutrients.
A butterfly garden can be any size, but it needs to be in a sunny, open area protected from wind. You should determine from which direction the prevailing wind comes from and plant larger shrubs, vines, and trees as a windbreaker. The windbreaker should protect the garden from wind without decreasing the amount of sunlight necessary for plant growth. You should choose nectar-producing trees, shrubs and vines that provide both food and protections. Pink or white ocean spray and rhododendron are excellent choices for shrubs. A trellis or wall covered with honeysuckle ore clematis will be a gorgeous barrier. Nectar producing trees include cottonwood, dogwood, cherry, apple or plum (Owens 1991).
Adult butterflies look for sources of nectar for food and color, fragrance, size, and shape are all important characteristics of the best nectar flowers. Because butterflies are nearsighted, they are attracted to large patches of a particular type of flower. If you want to attract a certain species, a large splash of brightly colored flowers of one type is more effective than several types of different plants. However, planting several kinds of good nectar producing flowers usually attracts more species of butterflies. Fragrance is even more important than color for attracting butterflies. Many nectar producing flowers such as lavender, lilac, and honeysuckle, gives off strong fragrances to attract pollinators. The size and shape of flowers is also important in attracting butterflies for your garden. Large butterflies, such as the swallowtail, prefer to land on flowers with large compact heads because they provide a seat for the butterflies to rest on while feeding. These types of flowers include asters, goldenrod, zinnia, marigolds, and yarrow.
Other flower types that butterflies prefer have tightly packed clusters of flowers. These include lantana, honeysuckle, and mildweed. For the best butterfly garden, choose a selection of plants that blossom at different times of the year to provide nectar throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Many butterflies, like monarchs, migrate south in the fall to spend the winter in warmer climates. Including fall-blooming forbs like asters and goldenrods in your garden will help them along on their journey. However, be careful not to plant flowers that are too aggressive or invasive such as English ivy. This plant can out-compete all other kinds of plants in the garden and limits the diversity of the garden habitat (Owens, 1991). In addition to nectar, butterflies need water and minerals although they do not drink from open water. They receive the moisture and minerals they need from moist areas around water. This is called “mud-puddling.” Butterfly mud-puddles can be created with a bucket or any non-toxic container that holds water. Find a sunny spot that is out of the wind and near the nectar plants. Bury the container in the ground, and fill it almost to the top with wet sand. Place a few twigs or rocks on top of the sand for perches (Owens, 1991). Most importantly, do not use pesticides in your garden because many pesticides not only kill the target insect species but adversely affect all stages of a butterfly’s life cycle. Some alternatives to pesticides are spot treating individual plants with organic oils or soaps, removing caterpillars from leaves by hand or just accepting insects as a natural part of a flourishing garden.
Besides the sheer pleasure of watching butterflies flit around on a sunny day, there is a strong argument for cultivating butterfly gardens and that is conservation. Jennifer Owen, in her book The Ecology of a Garden, argues that even small, conventional gardens can be a significant collective nature reserve, particularly in urban areas. Even if conservation isn’t your primary goal, you can take some satisfaction in knowing that your efforts may be contributing to the preservation of some of the world’s most beautiful creatures. References Owen, Jennifer. The Ecology of a Garden. (1991). Cambridge: University Press.