Want to attract butterflies to your garden? Just plant some asters in a sunny place and you're on your way. Other good plants to draw the colorful critters are buddleia (butterfly bush), blazing star (liatris), echinacea (coneflower), monarda (bee balm), rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan) and lantana. A mix of bright colorsespecially purple, orange, yellow, and redworks best.
Butterflies like to feed on the nectar of these and other flowering plants. But if you want to make your acrobatic friends' happiness complete, also provide them with host plants such as asclepias (milkweek), dill, parsley, and fennel. These are plants on which the butterflies can lay their eggs and that will nourish the resulting larvae.
Making Your Garden Butterfly Friendly
There are a lot of resources on the Internet to help you plan a butterfly-friendly garden, but one site really makes it easy: Gardens With Wings. All you do is type in your ZIP Code and you'll see photos of the different kinds of butterflies that pass through your area. You choose those butterflies you are interested in attracting, and the site will generate a list of the best nectar and host plants to do the job.
One additional step you'll want to take is to determine which plants on that list are native to your region. Using native plants is important because, as the National Wildlife Federation explains, many butterflies and native flowering plants have co-evolved over time and depend on each other for survival and reproduction. You can easily find a list of plants native to your state by visiting the Plant Native site. The ideal plants for your butterfly garden will be those that appear on both the Gardens With Wings list and the Plant Native list.
We carry nearly all the nectar and host plants that will show up on these lists, no matter where you live. We're proud of this, not only because we have a larger inventory than any other plant-seller online, but because the butterflies really need these plants, especially the host plants.
The Plight of the Butterfly
Over the last fifty years, the butterfly population has dramatically decreased because of habitat loss and our flittering friends are having a tough time.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently lists more than a dozen butterfly species as endangered or threatened. What's more, all species have been decreasing, mostly because the host plants they depend on have often been cut down or paved over.
Consider the exquisite Monarch: the only plant it will lay its eggs on is asclepias (milkweed). This plant is native to nearly all of the U.S., is hardy from Zones 3 – 9, and used to be found all over the place. Yet, today it is difficult for Monarchs to find, and their numbers have dropped to dangerously low levels. If you plant asclepias in a region through which the Monarchs pass, you'll be providing them with a nursery!
You might like to grow dill, parsley, and fennel for culinary reasons, but did you know that Black Swallowtail butterflies need them as a place to lay their eggs? By including these plants in your garden, you'll be helping the Black Swallowtails to be more plentiful.
Creating a Safe Butterfly Environment
One thing to understand before you start planting is that butterflies and pesticides do not mix. Butterflies are very sensitive creatures and even natural pesticides and herbicides can cause problems and even kill the eggs they've laid on the host plants you've provided. Instead, when it comes to both the nectar and host plants, use the old-fashioned method of picking pests off by hand. You can also release ladybugs to go after the pests for you. That is what they do at the Smithsonian, and it will work for you, too.
But be sure you don't squish the larvae, thinking it's an infestation of something pesky. To be sure you know what butterflies look like at every stage of their development, watch this beautiful slideshow produced by the University of North Carolina School of Education.
Perfecting Your Butterfly Garden
Provide the butterflies with opportunities to bask in the sun by placing a few flat stones around the garden. As for water, just keep your garden irrigated: the butterflies will use any tiny puddles as watering holes. If you live in a windy area, position your butterfly-attracting plants along a hedge, fence, or wall. And, again, be sure there is no pesticide or herbicide residue around the area where the butterflies are going to be eating and laying their eggs.
Expanding Your Knowledge
As with everything else concerning gardening, there's always more to learn. To view a comprehensive list of plants that attract butterflies, try Gardening for Butterflies, from Iowa State University. How to Make Butterfly Gardens from the University of Kentucky also contains a good list and a lot of helpful information. For a nice video introduction to the subject of attracting butterflies, check out this short video by P. Allen Smith.
If You Plant It, They Will Come
We wish you much success in attracting butterflies to your garden, and please don't get overwhelmed by the amount of information in this newsletter. All you need to do to get started is to plant some butterfly-attracting plants in a sunny place and use non-chemical methods of pest control. Enjoy yourself, and know that your butterfly friends will appreciate your efforts.