Backyard butterflies

Butterflies have long fascinated me. When I was a child in southern California, three lantana bushes that flowered in various shades of yellow, orange, and red bordered the 10-foot walk to our front door-an eye-catching rainbow hedge that was visited by dozens of fawn-colored skipper butterflies. 

The skippers held my attention for hours as they uncoiled their tongues and dipped them into the center of each minute flower. Occasionally one would crawl onto my finger, and I would look into its deep black eyes. 

More than 750 species of butterflies live in the United States and Canada, and each one is like a work of art-a living tapestry of stripes and circles. The butterfly's life cycle varies from species to species and with the time of year, but all butterflies metamorphose from eggs to caterpillars, then harden into a chrysalis for the pupal phase, and emerge as the beautiful winged adult we admire.

In summer the entire process takes from 5 to 10 weeks for all butterflies, but winter is a different story. Some butterflies hibernate-a period known as diapause. Sulphurs, whites, hairstreaks, and swallowtails hibernate as chrysalises; viceroys and fritillaries, as caterpillars; and red admirals, mourning cloaks, and monarchs-America's best-known butterfly-as adults. Monarchs, of course, are migratory, spending their winters in Mexico and on the coast of southern California. A few others, painted ladies among them, migrate shorter distances. 

Once the springtime temperature reaches 60 degrees, butterflies re-appear and look for spring flowers such as lilac, phlox, rhododendron, and dame's rocket. Butterflies' feet have taste receptors that sense sweet liquids. When those receptors find a nectar-laden treasure, they uncoil their tubelike tongues, called proboscises, and dine. 

The length of a butterfly's tongue determines which flowers it visits. Moths, which sometimes have longer tongues than butterflies, take nectar from long-tubed flowers like daturas and petunias. Butterflies can't. Skippers have long tongues, as much as one and a half times their wingspan. Monarchs and painted ladies also have long tongues; swallowtails and the white/sulphur family have intermediate-length tongues, and many members of the brushfoot family (which includes mourning cloaks) have a very short tongue. Knowing the tongue length of various species will give you a head start on deciding which types of flowers to plant to attract which butterflies. An orange sulphur may delight in asters and dandelions, but those flowers won't attract the tiger swallowtail, whose favorites include lilacs, butterfly bush, and Japanese honeysuckle.

Planning the Butterfly Garden
Your garden can make a difference to the shrinking habitat of butterflies. Even an area as small as 250 square feet can provide food, shelter, and a place for butterflies to lay their eggs. Begin by learning about local butterfly species through your cooperative-extension agent or a regional guidebook. 

Different flowers arranged at different heights will give shelter and provide nectar that will draw a variety of butterflies. Taller bushes such as hibiscus, privet, and lantana might serve as a backdrop for the shorter bee balm (Monarda), gayfeather (Liatris), borage, and lavender. Or plant a graduated pyramid: tall, willowlike butterfly bushes in the middle, surrounded by nicotianas, rudbeckias, and pineapple sage, and bordered by marigolds and shorter varieties of asters and zinnias. Fill the outskirts with low-growing thymes and sedums.

A butterfly garden is about more than just flowers. You can make it safe and hospitable by creating an environment that offers protection from wind and rain, providing a food source that is free of pesticides, and allowing weeds and wildflowers to remain so they can serve as host plants on which butterflies can lay their eggs. Other needs include plenty of sunshine and mud puddles where they can sip needed nutrients. Some butterflies, such as the mourning cloak, the red admiral, the angelwing, and the viceroy, rarely visit flowers, preferring sap flows on trees, fermenting fruit, bird droppings, and dung instead. Painted ladies and monarchs have been seen dipping their tongues into applesauce and watermelon rinds.

Nectar-Bearing Flowers
Butterflies are attracted by varying degrees to a flower's color, shape, or smell, but the biggest draw is nectar. Once a butterfly discovers the location of its favorite flowers, it will come back again and again. Zinnias, cape daisies, chrysanthemums, sunflowers, and African daisies (Osteospermum) are all composites-they have a circle of petals around a pollen-laden center-and are excellent all-around nectar plants for many butterflies. 

An abundance of flowers will invite butterflies to explore. Flowering plants in large groups are preferable to a few isolated plants spread around. Have their favorites blooming in seasonal succession, too. Span the entire warm-weather season with spring-flowering plants of lilac and sweet william; follow with summer zinnias, milkweed (Asclepias), gaillardias, and sunflowers; and end the season with fall flowers of aster, phlox, and purple coneflower (Echinacea). And don't forget the mints for monarchs, goldenrod for great swallowtails, and verbena for great spangled fritillaries.

Caterpillar Plants
To get the most out of your butterfly garden, provide host plants for females to lay their eggs on and for hatched caterpillars to feed on. Just think of the nibbled-on plants as a sacrifice to new life. Most caterpillars depend on only one or two host plants anyway, so if you plant extra you probably won't even notice the damage. Mon-arch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed (Asclepias), whereas the painted lady's plants of choice are thistles. Fritillaries adore violets, while red admirals feast mainly on nettles. The zebra swallowtail requires papaws; the giant swallowtail dines on citrus plants, and the anise and black swallowtails are satisfied by carrots, parsley, dill, and sweet fennel. Other caterpillar host plants and trees include sunflowers, birches, willows, wild plum, ash, penstemons, vetch, foxgloves, spicebush, passionvine, legumes, and grasses.

Sunshine and Shelter
Situate your butterfly garden in a sheltered area that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight. Butterflies can't regulate their body temperature very well, and this gives them a place to bask in the sun-especially important during cooler springtime weather. Butterflies start fluttering with a minimum air temperature of 60 degrees, but they fly best when it's warmer than 80 degrees. That's why you'll sometimes see them absorbing the sun's heat with outstretched wings. They may appreciate a large rock placed here and there, where they can rest and sunbathe.

You may be particularly successful as a butterfly gardener if your yard has a windbreak of trees or shrubs and places where butterflies can hide from the elements and roost at night. A raindrop on a butterfly is like a barrel of water poured on a human. An open shed or any tree with broad leaves-cottonwood, ash, elm-provides a good place to hide. And don't be too quick to sweep up leaves and fallen debris. Let pieces of bark, rocks, and leaves stay on the ground for butterflies to crawl under. A log pile stacked crosswise will also create a safe haven with many open nooks and crannies. 

When butterflies gather around a puddle or other wet place, they are sipping needed nutrients. This behavior, called puddling, enhances the viability of the female's eggs by transferring beneficial nutrients. Provide a place to puddle by burying a bucket filled with wet sand or soil, then placing a few sticks or rocks on top of the sand for butterflies to perch on. Be sure to fill the bucket with water when necessary.

Today my garden is frequented by a captivating clan of butterflies. I watch with enchantment as painted ladies, anise swallowtails, cabbage whites, fritillaries, and red admirals flit from flower to flower. And in the middle of it all grows a patch of flowering herbs, which brings in the skippers.

Kris Wetherbee is a butterfly gardener. She makes her home on a 40-acre farm in the hills of western Oregon. 


Easy to Grow Butterfly Plants

Plant USDA Zone Description How to Grow Butterflies
Butterfly bush*
5-9 summer
early fall
quick-growing shrub to 15' varying colors average soil, well drained
3-10 summer
1'-2' clump-forming perennial; drought tolerant well adapted to most areas
Chrysanthemum all summer-fall 1'-5' perennials/annuals; shape and color vary average to rich soil, well drained
3-9 summer-
1'-5' perennial with bright-yellow flowers average, moist; well-drained soil
5-10 summer-
fragrant shrub to 3'; drought tolerant average soiol well drained
3-8 spring arching shrubs to 15; best with winter chilling neutral/alkl, well-drained soil
all spring-
6"-18" bushy annual; not frost tolerant average water
3-10 summer-
sturdy, branching perennial to 4'; heat tolerant rich soil, well drained
Black-eyed Susan
3-9 summer-
18"-48"; mostly perennials; brightly colored flowers any soil soggy
Salvia 3-10 summer-
1'4' perennials/annuals, mounded to shrubby average soil, well drained
Swallowtails  Brushfoots  Whites  Sulphurs  Hairstreaks  Blues  Coppers  Skippers 

* invasive in some states; please check with your state cooperative-extension service