One of the most wonderful rewards from a garden full of color is the visits by the butterflies. It is easy to make your garden hospitable to these wonderful winged creatures. Late summer and early fall provides a feast for the eyes when the yellow clouded sulphur butterflies visit. They love the red flowers of my turk’s cap hibiscus and at times there have been actual clouds of them flitting around the blooms. This plant is not only attractive to butterflies but also to another welcome visitor to my garden–the hummingbirds.
It is important to know and recognize the four life cycle stages of the butterfly so that you can be a good host to each of the four stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and the winged adult, the butterfly. Once you know and recognize the four stages, it is necessary to accommodate the four stages with whatever their needs are: food or shelter. The adult butterflies will lay their eggs on host plants so that the larvae will have the necessary food to grow to the next stage, the caterpillar. Most butterflies are fairly specific about what they like to eat. One of the most picky is the monarch who will only lay eggs only on milkweed. The black swallowtail which is very common to this area lays eggs on dill, carrot, fennel, or parsley. I frequently see the caterpillars crawling up the stems of my parsley plants so I plant lots of those so there is enough for me and the caterpillars. Caterpillars need a sturdy protected place to attach and form the chrysalis. Adult butterflies live on the sweet flavored nectar found in flowers. Since butterflies are near-sighted, large sweeps of flowers half attract them. They suck the nectar with their mouths which are straw-like, so they are partial to long tubular flowers found on butterfly bushes, lantana, pentas, and butterfly weed. They will also visit pansies, marigolds, and impatiens. Flowers such as verbena and daisies are good because they have compound flowers which provide many nectar containers for sipping. Butterflies have a great sense of smell which guides them to the flowers with rich nectar. Humans and butterflies are attracted to flowers that smell sweet.
Butterflies are cold blooded; their body temperature depends on the air temperature. They prefer full sun. But the flowers that are especially attractive to butterflies also tend to be ones that do well in full sun. Butterflies like to warm themselves on stepping stones or gravel. I have a cluster of smooth black stones that I purchased at local big box store in case the visiting butterflies need a resting place. Male butterfly adults like to puddle; take a shallow container and fill with sand and then keep it wet for them. On a visit to the butterfly garden in Houston Texas, I noticed bowls of fruit placed around for the butterflies to visit; I have seen special containers in garden catalogues to hold the fruit.
Butterflies also need shelter on cloudy, windy, or rainy days so include woody or blooming shrubs in your butterfly garden. These sturdy bushes can also provide a place for the caterpillars to attach their chrysalis. Many hosts plants, like fennel, can also provide a sturdy place for the caterpillar to attach the chrysalis.
The most important thing to remember in butterfly gardening is to be really careful with chemicals sprayed near your plants. It is best to spot-treat insects with insecticidal soaps or oils which leave no chemical residue which can harm the caterpillar. Even better is to pick some insect pests off by hand. Or try a big spray of water from your garden hose.
A few well-chosen plants (and the knowledge of a butterfly’s needs) can provide you, the gardener, with many delightful hours and as, Martha Stewart would say, "a good thing."