The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Bring Butterflies to your Garden

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

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 these wonders 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 side—their voracious eating alter ego, the caterpillar. Some of the caterpillars are as intriguing as the butterflies. How about a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar that mimics bird droppings when young than a snake as it matures?

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. For example monarchs must have milkweeds. Butterflies are also significant 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 coincide nicely with the garden style many of us enjoy.

Perennial flowers include purple coneflower, blazing star, sedum, butterfly weed, aster, chives, ironweed, phlox, milkweeds, Joe Pye weed and New Jersey tea. The annual flowers include alyssum, zinnia, heliotrope, marigold, lantana and Mexican sunflower.

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

After all caterpillars are eating machines and eaters are going to eat. 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.

Native plants are gorgeous, durable additions to landscapes and just what butterflies need. Grand Prairie Friends native plant sale is Saturday May 9, 8:00 am - 1:00 pm Lincoln Square, Urbana, IL. Members will be on hand to answer questions and help you go native. At the same location, stop by Champaign Urbana Herb Society for some herb plants sure to please you and your butterflies.

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