The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Butterfly Gardening

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

It never ceases to amaze me that caterpillars and butterflies are even closely related. How can a long squishy eating machine possibly become a light, delicate, colorful wisp of flight?

To personally view this wonder of nature, why not invite butterflies to your garden? By cultivating specific flowers and reducing or eliminating the use of insecticides, you can attract many species of butterflies including black swallowtails, monarchs and painted ladies. In addition, a butterfly garden reminds us of natural cycles and the delicate interconnection of all life.

The life cycle of butterflies includes four stages of growth: egg, caterpillar (larva), chrysalis (pupa) and adult butterfly. Each stage looks and behaves differently from the previous stage. With all of their beauty, butterflies have a seemingly dark sidetheir voracious eating alter ego, the caterpillar. Some of the caterpillars are as intriguing as the butterflies. How about a caterpillar that mimics bird droppings or even a snake?

Butterflies and their caterpillars tend to have very specific plant requirements. Despite their porky appearance, caterpillars are often picky eaters and only feed on the leaves and sometimes flowers and seeds of specific plants or group of plants. Butterflies are important plant pollinators and because of their specific requirements for certain plants, they are good indicators of environmental quality.

A butterfly garden should provide a few basics such as food plants for the caterpillars and nectar sources for the butterflies. Butterflies are sun worshipers preferring a sunny spot away from strong winds. Sandy puddles of water for moisture and basking areas of rocks and logs are also favorite hangouts.

Good butterfly flowers are generally flat topped for a landing pad, have single petals and clusters of little flowers. Rather than single plants, butterflies enjoy large masses of flowers which coincides nicely with the garden style many of us enjoy.

Perennial flowers include purple coneflower, liatris, sedum, butterfly weed, asters, chives, ironweed, phlox, milkweeds, Joe Pye weed and butterfly bush. The annual flowers include alyssum, zinnias, heliotrope, marigolds, lantana and Mexican sunflower.

A caterpillar menu includes dill, broccoli, parsley, violets, carrots, hackberry, spicebush, willow, elm and wild cherry. You may have noticed a few caterpillar menu items such as dill and broccoli also appear on people menus.

Actually, very few species of butterflies have caterpillars which do extensive damage to our plants. In a garden we can solve this conflict by planting a few extra plants or ignoring a little feeding damage. Keep in mind plants will tolerate some caterpillar feeding without noticeable decrease in flowering and fruiting. At first, it may conflict with our ideas of being a "good gardener"to see caterpillar feeding damage. Just consider it a personal growth experience. I always have too much broccoli anyway.

You don't have to let them eat every plant just use the selective insecticide Bt sold at Dipel or Thuricide on the plants you want to keep and let the caterpillars have some of the others.

For a few extra plants of dill, visit the Champaign Urbana Herb Society sale Saturday, May 5 from 8:30 to 1 in the parking lot behind the Urbana Free library on the corner of Elm and Race streets in Urbana. Society members will be on hand to answer your questions and help you make selections. And while you are there, wish them a happy 25th Anniversary.

Native plants are beautiful, durable additions to landscapes and just what the native butterflies want. Grand Prairie Friends plant sale is Saturday, May 12 from 9-3. The sale will be held inside Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana. Members will be on hand to answer questions and help you go native.

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