This summer, although of late hotter than the Sahara, has still been a good one for butterflies.
I’ve been planting for these winged acrobats for most of my garden life, but I think this might be the best year ever. I attribute that to several things.
Butterflies don’t just appear with the tap of a magic wand. They require a few simple accommodations. They like a big, packed garden full of diversity. They also like their home to be a messy one. Nectar plants are important, but like most creatures, they want good schools for their children.
No, wait, I’m kidding. No schools, but they do require good food and shelter for their offspring. So, larval plants are as important as nectar sources.
This year, trying to attract the swallowtail group, I worked very hard to have plenty of herbs like parsley, dill and fennel. I bought plants of each early in spring (after danger of frost) and also planted seeds in the garden’s empty spaces. All of these compound umbels of the parsley family are as beautiful as they are tasty, so they make nice transition plants between the perennials.
I staggered plantings of these caterpillar loving plants so that once they gnawed their way through the first planting, I had more for the next nursery set.
I also planted several stands of butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, for the baby Monarchs, and hardy blue passion flower, Passiflora caerulea, for the Fritillaries. Butterfly weed can take awhile to get established, and it also sometimes moves around the garden on its own. In the future, I’m going to order some other native milkweeds for the garden.
While their parents floated throughout the garden sipping nectar, their little darlings ate their favorite plants, and then went to chrysalis land for their naps. A short time later they woke as adults and began the cycle all over again.
As a result, I have a quite varied group of butterflies this year including:
Gulf Fritillary. Larval plants include most of the passion-vine family including maypops, Passiflora incarnata, native to the southern U.S. and running pop, P. foetida, common to Texas and Arizona along with Central and South America. Nectar plants include: lantana, tall verbena, Verbena bonariensis, and drummond’s phlox, Phlox drummondii . I’ve seen them frequenting both the pentas and the garden phlox, Phlox paniculata. They seem especially fond of the cultivar ‘Bright Eyes’.
Black Swallowtail. The state butterfly of Oklahoma, Black Swallowtails are a common site along the edges of the deciduous forest. Larval foods come from the carrot or parsley family. Since I have tons of Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota, surrounding my garden (not purposely), Black Swallowtails should have a field day in my lower pasture (pun intended). Also, fennel (I grow the bronze because it’s pretty) and dill are popular caterpillar food. I’ve never noticed them on my carrots probably because they like the above plants better. Adult nectar sources include milkweeds (natives are best), common garden phlox, P. paniculata, thistles, which grow wild throughout Oklahoma (some are invasive) and purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Larval food: the leaves of common trees like ash, Fraxinus spp., birch, Betula spp., cottonwood, Populus spp., hornbeam, Carpinus spp., paw paw, Asimina spp., and many others, including wild cherry and plum and deciduous magnolia. Adults feed upon the nectar of butterfly bush like Buddleia davidii ‘Black Knight’, native honeysuckle, Lonicera spp.; common lilacs, milkweeds, and thistles. In my garden, they also seem to like the pink common garden phlox and the black-eyed Susans.
Giant Swallowtail. The caterpillars of this butterfly are pests to the orange growers of Florida. Here, with no orange leaves to eat, they satisfy themselves with prickly ash, Zanthoxylum americanum, hop trees, Ptelea trifoliata, and common rue, Ruta graveolens. Adults are especially fond of lantanas, bougainvilla, dame’s rocket, Hesperis matronalis, which is invasive throughout much of the U.S., goldenrod, Solidago spp., Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica (also extremely invasive) , and swamp milkweed.
Pipevine Swallowtail. larval food: the leaves of pipevines, Aristolochia spp. (I don’t know where they’re finding these nearby.) Adult food: honeysuckles, milkweeds and thistles
Spicebush Swallowtail: Like other swallowtails, caterpillars love the leaves of various trees and shrubs including prickly ash, Zanthoxylum; sweetbay, Magnolia; tulip tree, Liriodendron; adults enjoy the nectar from azaleas, rhododendrons, dogbane, jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, milkweeds and other native plants.
Monarch. Ah, the lovely Monarch, the star of so many children’s books, is in danger. Over the years, much of its habitat has been destroyed; and after an especially cold winter in Mexico, this queen of the butterflies needs our help. The best thing we can do is search out native milkweeds, Asclepias spp., and grow them in our gardens as caterpillar food. One of the best places to order these in Oklahoma is Wild Things Nursery which offers seven different types of milkweed. According to the Butterflies and Moths of North America website, “Monarchs visit a variety of flowers including dogbane, lilac, red clover, lantana, and thistles. In the fall adults visit composites including goldenrods, blazing stars, ironweed, and tickseed sunflower.” Many of these plants have a starring role in my garden.
Red Spotted Purple. Larval food: the leaves of apple trees, aspens, cottonwoods and poplars, along with many other trees. Adults like rotting meat, dung, rotting fruit, sap flows in trees, occasionally nectar of small white flowers.
Silvery Checkerspot. In my garden, the Silvery Checkerspot loves the Susans and hangs out and about them the entire day probably because its caterpillars love them too. Caterpillars also love members of the sunflower family, Helianthus spp.
Red Admiral. I think the Red Admiral is one of the most beautiful butterflies, but it is especially difficult to catch with my camera because of its erratic and quick flight. It’s like trying to capture the yellow sulphurs, nearly impossible. Still, whenever I’m in the garden, I make a mental picture of this beauty. Larval food is the nettle family. I don’t have any nettles growing in the garden, but I suspect they grow at the edge of my wood. Adults enjoy bird droppings (think of the chickens) and rotting fruit. They also will visit asters, milkweeds and alfalfa.
Phaon Crescent. Both adults and caterpillars enjoy nectar and leaves from the frogfruit and mat grass, which are part of the Verbena family. Where they are finding these nearby, I don’t know, but the butterflies have visited me this summer.
Painted Lady. I remember hatching these wonderful butterflies with the kids when we bought a butterfly kit one spring. Larval food includes members of the sunflower family, ironweed, Vernonia spp., and wormwood, Artemisia spp. Adults enjoy asters, dogbane, goldenrod, and milkweeds among other flowers.
Other butterflies, including the small skippers and sulphurs, are visiting too, but these are the most common ones in my garden.
To recap, if you want more butterflies to enjoy, remember:
- Plant what they like to eat. Keep some of the garden wild. Many native plants are either larval or nectar sources.
- Let the garden be full and natural. It gives them places to rest and hide and protects them from the wind. Caterpillars can also hide better in more crowded surroundings. Plus, the closer you plant things together, the less weeding you have to do.
- Grow more plants native to Oklahoma and the prairie. Much of the Great American tall and short grass prairie is gone, and butterflies need food for their journey. Monarchs are especially affected by the loss of native milkweeds, their only food source. Oklahoma is a prime migrating channel for Monarchs and other butterflies so I feel like it’s an obligation to help them along their way.
- Once the garden freezes, leave it in situ so that any pupating creatures still have homes. Some species of butterflies winter over and emerge in spring. Leaving seed heads also provides food and cover for many birds and other small creatures.
- Give butterflies shallow places to stop and drink. A small birdbath filled with flat stones is ideal. Also, a small muddy spot is good because many adult male butterflies “puddle” a process which aids in reproduction.
- Don’t spray pesticides and herbicides. It stands to reason if something kills the bad bugs, it won’t spare the “good” ones. Chemicals create a sterile environment which is anti-nature.
- Set out rotting fruit in a corner of the garden near nectar plants. Remember when the butterflies enjoyed my fallen peaches?
I know this was a long post, so if you read this far, thanks. I hope it helps those who are trying to attract more winged creatures to their gardens.
Now, I’m interested to hear which butterflies grace your garden and what you do to encourage them. Please let me know in a comment below. Also, if I mis-identified a butterfly, please let me know. Some of them are difficult to i.d.