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The Complete Butterfly Garden

A new Perspective

By Cirsium


Text Box:         Most articles on butterfly gardening focus on plants that attract butterflies by providing nectar to adults.  But nectar is only a small part of what butterflies need.  Some species of butterflies, for example, don’t use flower nectar.  So how do we find out what butterflies need?  And how do we encourage them to spend more time in our gardens?  If we invited all of our local butterflies to a round table discussion on butterfly needs and wants, what would they say?  This article will focus on answering those questions.


       First, we need to briefly explore the life cycle of the average butterfly.  It starts with the female laying an egg on a host plant.  After a few days that egg hatches and a caterpillar is born.  The caterpillar dines on the host plant and rapidly grows to its full size in a week or so.  Then two amazing transformations occur.  First the caterpillar transforms into a pupa.  And after a week or two, a mature full size adult butterfly emerges from this pupa.  It’s that wonderful story of metamorphosis that we all learned about in school.  The adult butterfly’s life span is only about two to four weeks.  During that time it attends to its nutritional needs, mates, and begins the cycle anew.


            With that understanding of the butterfly life cycle and the notes from the butterfly round table discussion, several important butterfly needs become apparent:

1.  Host plants (or as the butterflies like to call them, “Life Plants”, since their species cannot exist without them)

            2.  Your butterfly garden must to be designed for your local butterflies

            3.  Natural minerals – for nutritional needs; and sexual maturity in some species

            4.  Nectar – for some species

            5.  Non-nectar foods – for other species

            6.  Winter shelter

            7.  A pesticide-free environment


       Host plants are one of the most important butterfly needs.  Unfortunately, these plants are often overlooked when designing a butterfly garden.  Butterflies select their species-specific host plants by chemical signal receptors on their feet and antennae.  These chemical signals tell the female butterfly that this is the right plant to place her eggs.  She knows that this plant is the right plant to supply all the nutritional and ecological needs of her caterpillars.  Each butterfly species has a regular group of plants for host plants.  For the Monarch it’s milkweeds (Asclepias species), for the Pipevine Swallowtail it’s pipevines (Aristolochia species), for the Great Spangled Fritillary it’s violets (Viola species), etc.  A few species of butterflies can use a wide selection of host plants; the Painted Lady, for example, can use over a hundred different plant species.  Now to get the right host plants for your butterfly garden, you will need to know which butterflies are in your area.


       You could do this with a good butterfly book for your area, but it would require a good deal of work sorting out all the butterflies.  Fortunately, there is a much easier online source for this information.  Simply go to this website and click on your state:


Scroll down the page and you will see a list of all the butterflies that have been documented in your state.  You can even select your county from the state map and narrow the list down to just those butterflies that have been documented in your county. 


       When you click on the butterfly names in the list, you’re taken to a page with photos and information on that butterfly.  One of the categories of information is “caterpillar hosts”, but don’t rely on this particular information.  On this website they do not distinguish between native and invasive exotic plants; they lump them all together.  The native plants are great choices, but the invasive plants will ruin your butterfly garden and your landscape.  Every butterfly has at least one native host plant.  Check other sources for host plants, and be sure to verify that the ones you select are native plants in your area.


Text Box:  Text Box:         Another nutritional need for many of your butterflies is natural minerals.  Some species of butterflies cannot become sexually mature without these minerals.  You’ll often see natural minerals referred to as “mineral salts”.  But this can be misleading; “mineral salts” is a chemical term used for many different chemicals.  It is not the same as the common understanding of salt.  You’ll often see this misunderstanding leading to the recommendation of adding table salt to butterfly feeders, etc.  Butterflies don’t need the addition of table salt, and it may even be harmful to them.  All of the natural minerals that they need are already in the soil.  The butterflies only need access to exposed moist soil.  If there is a natural body of water nearby, you need do nothing more.  If there isn’t any nearby source of moist soil for them, you can make one by digging a shallow hole, lining it with something that holds water, and then refilling it with soil.  Moisten it periodically to keep it wet, but avoid having a lot of standing water.


            Nectar plants might seem to be a very easy and straight-forward item to supply for a butterfly garden.  Most butterfly gardening articles focus almost exclusively on this topic.  But there are important considerations that are often overlooked.  First, the garden should be designed for a continuous bloom.  Select plants that bloom in continuous succession from early spring to late fall.  Avoid selecting double type and hybrid flowers if you can.  These types of flowers are often poor nectar sources.  Don’t worry about the often cited “landing pad” type of flower heads.  The meadow blazingstar (Liatris ligulistylis) is one of the all time favorite butterfly nectar plants, and it has no landing pad.  And don’t forget that many of your native host plants will do double duty as excellent nectar sources.

Text Box:

       For those butterflies that rarely or never use flower nectar, such as the Mourning Cloak, Commas, Tortoiseshells, Admirals, Little Wood Satyr, Common Wood-Nymph, Red Spotted Purtle, etc., host plants provide the best opportunity to attract these butterflies to your garden.  These butterflies feed on tree sap, carrion and dung (gross to us maybe, but not to some butterflies).  If you provide a good habitat for all wildlife, these butterflies will find what they need for their nutritional requirements.  You can try making a feeder for these types of butterflies if you wish.  They will use it.  Just place some overripe fruit (rotting is actually best) in a shallow container or dish and keep it moist with some fruit juice.  Placing it in a shady location will keep it from drying too fast.


       Winter shelter is a topic that is rarely discussed in butterfly gardening articles, but it is quite important.  All butterfly species have to survive the winter in some form to carry on the species from year to year.  Some species will overwinter as eggs, some as caterpillars, some as pupae and some as adults.  Eggs, caterpillars and pupae will be fine on their own as long as their resting places are not destroyed.  This is the perfect excuse for “untidiness”!!  Leave those stems standing for the winter – there may be a pupae attached to it.  Don’t burn those leaves and old stems – there may be a caterpillar hiding in it.  Don’t – well, you get the idea.  For those that overwinter as adults, brush piles, wood piles and dead trees with loose bark are all winter havens.  One thing that doesn’t work for butterflies is “butterfly houses”.  If a butterfly ever tried to get into one, it would probably become spider food.


Text Box:         Pesticides kill “bugs”; and butterflies and their caterpillars are “bugs”.  There may be a nice big picture of a pest that you want to get rid of on the product label, but these chemicals kill all kinds of insects.  Read the fine print on the label some time to see how destructive these chemicals really are.  There is no “butterfly safe” way to use these insecticides; if you want butterflies, you just have to avoid using them.


            Hopefully, this article has provided you with a new perspective on butterfly gardening.  A perspective from the butterfly’s point of view.  Ideas that you can use in your garden for your butterflies.  A butterfly garden designed with these ideas in mind will not only attract more butterflies for you to see, but it will become a butterfly producing garden as well.  Which, of course, will provide even more butterflies for you to enjoy.


       If you would like more information on butterfly gardening, or would like to ask some questions about butterflies or host plants, please check out the forums at Wildlife Gardeners:


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