Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Mention butterfly gardening, and visions of colorful butterflies flitting among brightly colored flowers come to mind. But butterfly gardening is not just a means to attract beautiful adult butterflies to the garden. It can be a way to provide support for all life stages and help preserve populations of these beautiful members of the insect world.
It's tempting to think that butterfly gardening is reserved for those of us fortunate enough to have a large expanse of land. The truth is that many native species of butterfly exist in a very small home range, not much bigger than a small backyard.
There are also some species that migrate long distances, such as Illinois' state insect, the Monarch butterfly. The Monarch migrates from Canada to Mexico and back over the course of each year. How this happens is truly a mystery for the scientific world, as more than one generation is born and dies during the year. The butterfly that begins the journey is not the same butterfly that completes it. In the spring they begin their return trip, and the same is true.
Scientists call their migration an "endangered phenomenon". Deforestation in Mexico threatens the Monarch's overwintering sites, and the loss of milkweed in the U.S. threatens the larval stage of the Monarch. Milkweed is a crucial food source for Monarch larvae, and is commonly considered a weed by many in the U.S. It is not as common as it used to be, as spray programs for roadsides and agricultural fields have reduced much of the milkweed in the wild, and increased residential and business development replaces open land with highly manicured landscapes.
As the world becomes more developed and natural areas are more and more fragmented, having butterfly gardens in urban environments is important in facilitating the monarch's great journey. They provide an oasis along the way. With a little planning, even the smallest backyard can provide for all stages of a butterfly's life cycle.
When planning your butterfly garden, consider the needs of all stages of the butterfly life cycle: egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupae, and adult. Search your local library, bookstore, or do an internet search for lists of plants appropriate for a butterfly garden.
Generally speaking, the female butterfly prefers to lay her eggs on the plant that will be a food source for the larvae when they hatch. The adults prefer to eat nectar from flowers, but also benefit from a source of water and since they are cold-blooded, need a spot to warm themselves in the sun. The larvae need a sheltered place in which to form their pupae or chrysalis undisturbed while they undertake the amazing process of metamorphosis and emerge as a beautiful adult butterfly. Some adult butterflies don't migrate, but they do overwinter in fallen leaves, log piles, or other sheltered areas in the garden.
Butterflies prefer areas with puddles of water rather than deep water. This is easily done with a saucer filled with sand and soil, and sprinkled with a dash of salt to mimic the minerals naturally found in soil. Another option is to take a wine bottle that has a little indentation in the bottom, and bury it upside down, using the indentation to hold water for your very own "butterfly bath". You can group bottles of different colors, sizes, and heights to create your own living artwork.
Ideally, the flowers in your garden will provide enough nectar for adult butterflies that visit the garden. There are some fun ways to supplement the natural nectar, and they're great fun for the kids in your house (actual kids and grown-up kids too!) There are commercial butterfly feeders available that mimic flowers and draw a nectar solution up through spongy centers of the flowers. The one I found was marketed to kids, and of course the kid in me had to try it.
Another more economical option is to take brightly colored kitchen sponges, and cut them in flower-shaped pieces or just random shapes arranged in a saucer or small dish. Mix one third of a cup of sugar with one cup of water to simulate nectar, and saturate the sponges with this mixture. Set the dish outdoors where butterflies tend to visit, and watch them enjoy the treat you've made for them. Remember to clean any type of feeder you use every few days to prevent mold growth.
Remember when planning a butterfly garden, think twice before using insecticides in the garden. While you may truly have some pests present, many of the insecticides will harm one or more life stage of butterflies. For example, many gardeners prefer to use the more "natural" insecticide produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This insecticide kills all kinds of caterpillars, even those that later become the butterflies you're trying to attract. You may be forced to redefine your idea of a "perfect" garden.
Also consider that many plants we commonly consider weeds, like Milkweed, are in fact essential for butterfly larvae. You may consider allowing a corner of your yard to go "wild" and let some of these plants grow to provide an oasis for growing caterpillars.
Whether your yard is big or small, rural or urban, we can all make a little room for butterflies. It takes a little bit of planning, but is not as impossible as it might seem.