Planting Contentment

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

I recently asked 130 seventh and eighth grade students what they thought of insects. Most of their responses were negative.

Yet after the students systematically cast aside cockroaches, fleas and mosquitoes, they disclosed a fond attachment for one group of six-legged arthropods: the butterflies. Gorgeous to look at, butterflies manage to do the impossible: grab and hold the attention of adolescents.

That's not so surprising. The itinerant creatures have been noticed by just about everyone else. Butterflies show up as ornaments in the wares of artisans and they become the metaphors of wordsmiths.

So attractive are butterflies, they earn from entomologists (students of insects) the diminutive name "leps." The appellation is short for Lepidoptera, the insect order to which butterflies and moths belong. ("Scaly" from the Greek word "lep-" and "winged" from the Greek word "pteron-" give the order its name.)

But the lovely "leps" are much more than pretty insects. As they quench their thirst for nectar, butterflies quietly and effortlessly pollinate cultivated and wild plants. Both butterflies and caterpillars are important sources of food for songbirds. Thus, an abundance of butterflies creates a beautiful place and signals a healthy habitat.

Gardeners and butterflies actually derive a mutual benefit from butterfly friendly environs. So scarce are butterfly habitats in some areas that any welcome provided in a garden becomes a safety zone. Even a few caterpillars feeding in one garden, or on the parsley in one porch pot, can be important to the population of a butterfly species: the difference between persistence and extinction.

Just imagine Missouri crisscrossed by chains of garden plots, window boxes and porch pots - a tangle of Frederick Law Olmsted's green necklaces. Each green gem would be a haven for butterflies. The winged beauties could skip from one link to another finding the best nourishment and rewarding an informal network of conservationists.

A large number of printed "how-tos" instruct those who would plant to welcome butterflies to their yards. Among them is the Conservation Department booklet Butterfly Gardening and Conservation (Dave Tylka, 1990). Moreover, the taxonomic standard bearer Butterflies and Moths of Missouri (J. Richard and Joan E. Heitzman, 1987), which is also published by the Conservation Department, serves those who want to attract and identify butterflies.

The abundance of guides to butterfly gardening begs the question: What else is there to know? The answer is threefold. Butterfly gardening is easy. It can be done in a small space. It produces the happy

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