Butterfly Gardening for Adults

Part I- attracting adult butterflies to your yard.

When leading butterfly walks or giving talks about butterfly watching, some of the most common questions that I get pertain to butterfly gardening.  Planting a butterfly garden is a great way to expand your butterfly-watching opportunities, brighten up and add value to your home, and provide essential habitat for butterflies in your corner of the world.  A butterfly garden can be as simple as adding a potted plant to the balcony of your apartment.

Before going into the details of what to plant, it’s important to note a very strict rule if you want your butterfly garden to be successful- no pesticides!  Insecticides don’t discriminate.  They’ll just as easily kill a butterfly as they will cutworms and squash beetles.

A Variegated Fritillary, Euptoieta claudia, nectaring on thistle. Photo taken near Prescott, AZ by Zach Smith

When most people think of butterfly gardening, they think of showy flowering plants that will attract nectaring adult butterflies.  This is, of course, an important component of a butterfly garden, and it may be sufficient for your level of interest, the space you have available, or the resources you have to commit to your garden.  It’s also a great first step- plant some nectar flowers and see who shows up!  You may find after a while, though, that you want to observe butterflies during their other life stages, and this is where some knowledge of natural history comes in handy.

Butterflies have four developmental life stages (they’re holometabolous), so a well-rounded butterfly garden should accommodate eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults.  But one individual species might have completely different needs for each life stage, and the requirements of one species will often differ from the requirements of another.  How to accommodate all of those different needs?

Let’s start with the adult stage.  Many (but not all!) species of butterflies in the US come to flowers to sip nectar for energy.  Unlike hummingbirds and moths, butterflies need to perch in order to drink (which they do by unrolling their long, tongue-like proboscis).  They locate nectar sources visually and by chemical sensing (similar to our sense of smell).  Some colors are more attractive than others but there are no hard and fast rules.  The best strategy is to observe what’s happening in your area and see what flowers are attracting the locals.  Take a walk around your neighborhood, your favorite park for butterfly watching, and a few nurseries.  Try a variety of colors and sizes for the best chance to attract multiple species.  Try to plant so that you maximize the blooming season- rather than lots of flowers that all bloom at once, try to stagger plantings so that things flower in different seasons, ensuring a constant supply of available nectar.

The shape and structure of the flower determines who can pollinate it, and who will come to sip nectar (if the plant produces it- not all flowers make nectar).  In addition to a landing pad, appropriate scent, and attractive color, a butterfly needs to be able to reach the nectar with her proboscis.  This means the throat of a flower can’t be too deep or too shallow.  For example, a small butterfly like a roadside skipper can easily reach the nectar of a small flower like lantana, but would probably have trouble getting nectar out of the long spurs of a golden columbine.

Taxiles Skipper, Poanes taxiles, nectaring on thistle flower. Note the black proboscis extending into the flower.

I always recommend planting native species whenever possible.  Native plants provide habitat for many different animals, reduce the amount of watering and fertilizing you’ll need to do, and help lessen the chance of spreading pests and invasive species.  If you’re lucky there’s a native plant nursery in your area, but if not, there is bound to be a native plant society, nature center, or master gardener group that can give you some pointers on how to acquire native plants for your garden.  The Xerces Society has a lot of great resources to help you with this.

Some flowers, despite being attractive additions to a cut flower garden, are essentially useless to butterflies.  Unfortunately, roses, peonies, and a lot of cultivated showy flowers won’t do much to attract butterflies.  This doesn’t mean a butterfly garden can’t be beautiful and showy, though-  milkweeds, butterfly bush (Buddleja), lantana, coneflower, lavender, (single) zinnias, and Joe-Pye weed are just some of the reliable flowers that butterflies find irresistible.

Some butterfly species are attracted to things that are… less charming than flowers.  Rotten fruit is attractive to species like emperors, admirals, anglewings, and many others.  Try smearing some overripe bananas on trees or fenceposts in your yard and see what happens.  Newly-emereged males of some species are often attracted to damp patches of ground, where they suck minerals out of the moisture with their proboscis.  This activity, called puddling, is apparently so compelling that a butterfly might lose all sense of inhibition and let you catch it by hand!  Puddles, stream edges, and seeps often attract dozens of butterflies at a time, all mesmerized by the intoxicating minerals they’re busy slurping up.  Probably the least winning habit of nutrient-seeking butterflies, at least as far as human sensibilities are concerned, is the tendency to come to scat and carrion, again presumably for the salts and minerals.   Since I doubt very many people want to incorporate either of those particular delicacies into their garden, I’ll refrain from expanding on that particular topic.

Up next: Butterfly Gardening for early life stages


One thought on “Butterfly Gardening for Adults

  1. Pingback: Butterfly Gardening for Babies, Children, and Teenagers | Chasing Checkerspots

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