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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 byproduct of making the environment just a bit healthier.

How easy is it?

Missouri boasts nearly 200 species of butterflies, a quarter of those that reside in the United States. A few tokens of encouragement may attract many of them to human neighborhoods. Of course, the butterflies will not all arrive at one time. But the best days can be good indeed. For example, fluttering in our yard at 11 a.m. one April day were a sulphur, an admiral, a tiger swallowtail and a monarch.

Butterfly needs are not unlike human ones. They seek nourishment, water, basking sites and shelter.

Planting to attract butterflies need not be expensive or exhausting. Saving, sowing, sharing and (even) slacking do the trick. Those four activities - or bit of inactivity, in the case of slacking - attract throngs of butterflies to our one-quarter acre of Missouri. Some of our most successful butterfly baits (plants) - and the butterflies they tempt - are highlighted here.

The general principles for any butterfly gardener are these:

  • Adult butterflies stop at flowers to lay eggs and take nectar.
  • Pungent and sweet fragrances attract them; so do purple, red, orange, yellow and pink blossoms.
  • Nectar sustains adults.
  • Immature butterflies (caterpillars) consume plants, and the caterpillars have their favorite host plants.

Saving

Saving wildflowers is a good way to get started. Orange and yellow clouded sulphurs (1.5-3 inches, across wings) - named for the black on their wings - like white clover. Resist pulling yellow-blossomed, sensitive-leaved sennas (Cassia) and attract cloudless and orange-barred sulphurs.

Nightshades and fleabanes bring clouded and plain winged whites (1.4-3 inches). Pinkweed (Polygonium) reaches out to coppers (1 inch). Coppers sparkle when the sun bounces off the mixed reds, silvers and blues in their wings.

Thistle and shepherd's purse attract wood nymphs (2-3 inches), brown winged butterflies that match the bark of trees where they rest. Spots on the wings of some wood nymphs resemble eyes (eyespots) and threaten birds looking for a tasty meal. Violets summon fritillaries (3-4 inches) whose wing patterns of orange and red appear etched from a thick black cover of crayon.

The common red-banded hairstreak (1 inch) favors mallows. Gray wings trimmed with red bands account for the butterfly's name. Many a bird - and novice butterfly watcher - has mistaken the moving antennalike extensions of the hind wings for a head.

Question mark caterpillars feed on nettles, so the drab, brown and orange ragged-winged adults (2-3 inches) visit to lay eggs. Related painted ladies (2 inch), wings awash in oranges, browns and white, also visit nettles. But the widely distributed ladies are often called thistle butterflies because they prefer that flower's nectar.

Swarms of monarchs (2.5-3.5 inches) give milkweeds (Asclepias) the name butterfly weed. Nightshades also attract monarchs. Saving some of the white and lavender members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) presents anything but a visual hardship.

Cone flowers (Echinacea spp.) evoke mixed reactions from gardeners. Many species of butterflies react enthusiastically, however. They stop for nectar and exploit a large surface (flower head) for what can be a lengthy (photographer's time) respite.

Sowing

Sowing annuals invites butterflies. Annuals make low-cost alternatives to perennials like butterfly bush (Buddleia), which in any case is too limited in its flowering time to merit space in a small area. Water (and occasionally feed) annuals early in the morning to encourage nectar flow; the midday reward is a steady stream of butterflies. Because blossoms of annuals stretch from June through September, they are reliable seducers of butterflies.

Zinnias fit in nicely among perennials. Keeping slugs from nibbling them in the seedling stage is the only challenge. The big colorful flower heads bring the familiar skippers, painted ladies, monarchs, tiger swallowtails, and they coax the large mourning cloaks (2.5-3.5 inches) from woodlands. Yellow wing edges underlain by a row of bluish purple markings make the otherwise dull brown wings of the mourning cloak remarkable and unmistakable.

Nasturtiums bring little gems, the blues (0.5 inch), a k a azures, which say it all with their name. Topside, wings of blues hold just a hint of red. Folded, wings show their surprising black-spotted, white undersides. Asters attract crescents (1 inch), butterflies named for the shape of their orange and black wing markings, which resemble the mottling in a cake.

The biennial blazing stars (Liatris spp.) draw woodland butterflies. For example, buckeyes (2.5 inch) are regulars on the profuse lavender flowers. Erratic flyers who prefer to alight for a good, long drink of nectar, buckeyes have two eyespots - one large and one quite small - on each of their wings.

Perennials take a few years to establish themselves. But once anchored, they spread. Chat about butterfly likes and dislikes with neighbors and while talking, line up some clumps of perennials to be split for transplanting in March.

Many gardeners with thriving perennials are eagerly searching for a friendly home for divided plants, given the only alternative: the compost heap. Trading makes adding perennials to a garden a cost-free, if not an effortless endeavor.

Phlox, verbena, daisies, lavender and sedum are good choices for perennials because they produce abundant nectar. Expect skippers (1 inch) - butterflies that fold their wings when feeding - to frequent them and all garden flowers. A large silver patch on the underside of each wing marks the common silver-spotted skipper.

If creating a woody habitat is an option, remember that butterfly caterpillars in North America prefer trees in the rose family (Rosaceae). For example, hawthorn, Missouri's state flower, brings the tiger swallowtail (5-6 inches), a namesake of the feline whose markings it matches. Spirea is another good choice for border plantings.

Willows and poplars feed caterpillars of many species, including the viceroy (2 inch). The viceroy is the monarch mimic, distinguished from its model by more black banding. Compensating for a short flowering time, nectar-rich butterfly bush (Buddleia) is a beacon to many kinds of butterflies.

Sharing

Sharing food plants, particularly garden vegetables, with caterpillars is not an option for everyone. But the willing vegetable gardener might offer some cabbage, cauliflower and radishes to the caterpillars of whites, which are better known as "loopers" when they reach nuisance numbers.

An exceptionally generous gardener - synonymous with a real butterfly lover - can increase the numbers of skippers, clouded sulphurs and hairstreaks by setting aside some leguminous plants for the caterpillars of those butterflies.

Slacking

Finally, consider slacking, taking a break from manicuring part of the lawn. A patch of uncut grass encourages wood nymphs and skippers and others. They come to lay eggs. Their caterpillars stay to eat.

For full-scale slacking, allow some common herbs to flower. That tells butterflies they are genuinely welcome. Flowers of dill, fennel, carrot, celery and parsley bring many kinds of swallowtails. Watch for their caterpillars - three banded (green, black, yellow) and without any projections - on the stems in mid-to-late summer.

Accoutrements

Water, surfaces for sunning and shelter perfect a butterfly garden. In addition to feeding, butterflies "puddle." Adults assemble in wet muddy areas to drink water and imbibe dissolved minerals. Offer butterflies a wet patch in the garden - just a quarter of an inch of water - and expect some takers.

Butterflies often bask. After a cool night, their wing muscles must warm up (some to 30 degrees) before they can fly. Strategically set out a rock or two so butterflies can take advantage of the early morning sun.

Construct natural or artificial windbreaks to protect butterflies from gusty conditions. The more shelter, the more likely it is butterflies will visit and linger, even on the windiest days.

Small Spaces

Apartment dwellers eager to attract butterflies should not despair. If there's a place for a porch or step pot, a window box or a hanging planter, butterflies can be enticed. Fill containers and small spaces with annuals and herbs.

Marigolds get at least a fleeting inquiry from most butterflies. Short stemmed asters and zinnias are also good choices. Dense clumps of parsley, dill and the like invite egg laying swallowtails to stop.

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