Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Creating a Butterfly Garden

“Creating a Butterfly Garden,”

By Becke Davis

Butterfly gardens are different from many other “theme” gardens -- to be successful, the garden not only needs to have a pleasing design that works with the surrounding home and landscape but it needs to perform a very specific task. Attracting butterflies may seem like a fairly straightforward task if you assume that all butterflies are attracted to all flowers.
In reality, there are literally thousands of species of butterflies and each species tends to have a distinct group of plants as preferred food source. When selecting plants for a butterfly garden, it is also important to remember that a butterfly goes through four life cycles, with one set of food requirements for the larval stage and another type of food once the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis.
Some theme gardens need meticulous care and a neat, sometimes formal appearance to create the intended ambience. Butterflies like their surroundings to be a little messy, on the other hand. Rocky paths muddied by a sprinkler or parts of the garden where water pools on flat rocks will attract many species of butterfly like a luxury spa attracts movie stars. Research indicates that minerals released through the water’s evaporation process, primarily sodium, may play a vital part in the mating habits of butterflies. For this reason some experts recommend putting small salt licks in a butterfly garden.
Butterflies also have a powerful sense of smell and, much like dogs, the scents that they find attractive aren’t always scents the human population likes to encourage. Rotting fruits and vegetables are gourmet treats for some butterflies, while others are drawn to the more pleasant aromas of clover or wild violets.
Areas in or around the garden where grass is allowed to grow long can act as a shelter and, for some species, a place to lay their eggs. Pesticides and herbicides should be avoided, whenever possible, because in almost every stage of life butterflies are extremely vulnerable to such toxins. If you can live with a section of your garden that is somewhat overgrown with grass, wildflowers, trees and shrubs, you will probably find more butterflies in this little wilderness than among carefully tended flower beds.
Like plants, there are woodland species and those that prefer a sunny spot, but even sun-loving butterflies will appreciate the presence of a shaded shelter. Not many butterflies overwinter in the extreme climates of the Midwest, but those that do (sometimes called “hibernators”) will also benefit from winter shelter – mounds of ivy growing over old tree stumps, piles of logs or large, dead tree branches, a stack of old bricks or chunks of concrete. Some butterflies will hibernate in old trees, while others will welcome the presence of specially designed “butterfly houses” as winter shelter. Winter or summer, butterflies need protection from the wind and a place where the sun will be reflected, somewhere safe from predators – including the trampling feet of children.
If a butterfly garden is to be created as part of an older, established landscape, look for a site that offers shelter – an overgrown fence, a clump of trees, the base of a sloping lot, or a rocky outcropping with a flat, grassy spot nearby would all be likely candidates. Water features and several hours of sun would complete the picture – minus only the butterfly-attracting plants.
Call it serendipity, but the preferred style of planting for design purposes – starting with low edging plants and gradually working up, level by level, to the tallest plants – is also one of the best arrangements for a butterfly garden. This is not only because it makes it easier for the butterflies to identify their favorite nectar-producing plants when they are clearly visible, but the taller plants offer shelter from both wind and predators.
The popular concept of a mixed border, combining annuals, perennials, herbs, roses, shrubs, vines and ornamental trees, all underplanted with bulbs, will provide a long bloom season as well as a variety of food sources and forms of shelter that will attract a large assortment of butterflies over a long period.
A companion article at the back of this issue (see page XXX) lists information about butterfly monitoring, an activity celebrating its 30th year in this country. The Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network (w) is a good source of information about which butterflies are most likely to visit this area. If the goal is to attract specific, less common butterfly visitors, it will be necessary to find out what nectar and larval food sources will be necessary to attract that particular species.
Monarch butterflies are usually a common sight in Illinois, other likely candidates include Cabbage White butterflies, Clouded Sulphur, Orange Sulphur, Eastern-Tailed Blue, Meadow Fritillary, Pearl Crescent, Viceroy, Great Spangled Fritillary, Summer Azure, Question Mark, Least Skipper, European Skipper, and the Dion Skipper. The University of Illinois Extension Service publishes a list of some common butterflies in this area (1), and the larval foods that will attract those species. The list includes the following, generally large, butterflies:

• Black Swallowtail feeds on carrots, parsley and dill in the larval stage
• Giant Swallowtails prefer prickly ash or citrus trees
• Spicebush Swallowtail is attracted to spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafrass
• Tiger Swallowtail likes wild cherry, birch, apple and tulip tree, among others
• Zebra Swallowtail prefers the pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba)
• Monarch Butterflies like milkweeds (Asclepias)
• Great Spangled Fritillary feeds on violets
• Painted Lady butterflies like thistles and bachelor’s buttons
• Viceroys prefer pussy willows, plums and cherries

The nectar sources for butterflies include annuals, perennials, wildflowers, herbs, shrubs and trees. Annuals and tender perennials known to attract many species of butterfly include zinnias, white alyssum, marigolds, lantana, cosmos, nicotiana, petunias, ageratum, fuchsia, snapdragons and sunflowers. Herbs and wildflowers that attract butterflies include chives and other alliums, bee balm, spearmint, Anaphalis, Lunaria, Verbena, dandelions, clover, Queen Anne’s Lace, butterfly weed, goldenrod and thistle. Perennials for butterfly gardens include daisies, Phlox, Aster, Liatris, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Eupatorium, Achillea, Aubretia, Helenium, Echinops, Limonium, Sedum, Phystostegia, Scabiosa, Coreopsis, Hemerocallis, Heuchera, Lilium, Lythrum, Lavandula, Myosotis and Penstemon. Shrubs, vines and trees for butterfly gardens include Abelia, Aesculus, Aruncus, Buddleia, Clethra, Crataegus, Lindera, Lonicera, Malus, Prunus, Ribes, Salix, Spirea, Syringa, Vaccinium and Wisteria.
Most everyone will agree that butterflies are beautiful, somewhat ethereal creatures whose colorful wings and graceful flight patterns add a sense of wonder to any garden planting. Is it worth all the time and trouble to research and monitor butterflies, designing gardens that cater to their slightest whim in the hopes of attracting a rarity?
Creating butterfly habitats is not just a passing fad, it is an ecological necessity. In the 30 years since the national butterfly monitoring network was first established, the counts of many once thriving butterfly species are dropping year by year. Woodlands and prairies that once fed and sheltered these species are part of a vanishing ecosystem. Creating butterfly gardens is a small step towards balancing the ecological scales.


Steve Banovetz is senior ecologist for Agrecol Corp., a wholesale grower with about 1,000 acres in Madison, WI. Agrecol grows native plants -- and sells both seeds and plants -- all of which are southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois genotypes suitable for wetlands, woodlands, savannas and prairies. Agrecol also specializes in rainwater gardens, lakeshore gardens, and gardens designed to attract birds and butterflies.
One of the first things to consider when designing a butterfly garden, Banovetz stresses, is that there is a difference between a small, specimen-type butterfly garden and a true butterfly habitat. “A specimen garden might be used by butterflies a few hours a day, but to sustain butterflies in your area you need the shelter of a field or prairie nearby,” he says. “It would be nice to have a source of water, a sunny location and a field-like setting -- a prairie is ideal. Butterflies also enjoy perching on branches of trees like crabapples or shade trees. Not so much dense evergreens -- deciduous trees are better.”
When it comes to making plant selections, Banovetz recommends any heavy nectar-producting plants, particularly plants in the mint and milkweed family. “Goldenrod and asters are good -- you often find butterflies massed on those. Select plants that will bloom from beginning to late season to keep the butterflies in your garden.Color may be a visual way to draw butterflies in, he adds. “Showy flowers are usually, but not always, good nectar producers.”
New, improved varieties of plants may not always be the best choices for butterfly gardens, Banovetz notes. “There have been reports in recent years that when you select plants to improve them or make a flower different, the improvements often break down the reproductive system so features like nectar and scent are lost.”
One mistake landscaper contractors sometimes make when installing butterfly gardens is not preparing the soil, says Banovetz. “If the soil is incorrectly prepared, you will get lots of weeds. You also need to use plants that clump, like native grasses, not grasses that will fill in like sod. If you just let the weeds naturalize, you will end up with cool season Eurasian grasses like quackgrass. Native clump forming grasses work as companion plants, where quackgrass would dominate. Native wildflowers and clump grasses will help make a plant community. I recommend using natives whenever possible -- they also provide scent and nectar.”
Typically, when planting a native habitat garden, Banovetz would use an equal mix of grasses and wildflowers. In a butterfly garden, he recommends a mix of 75 percent wildflowers and 25 percent native grasses. There are countless plant sources to choose from, Banovetz says. “Herbs are good because they tend to be heavy nectar producers,” he says. “I also like sky blue asters, stiff goldenrod, milkweed, butterfly weed, hyssop and mountain mint.”


This article and the following sidebar were originally published in the February 2005 issue of The Landscape Contractor magazine.

File Name: Butterflygardens.doc
Word Count: 2,335


“Butterfly Q & A: Trivia from the Lepidopterist’s Society” (2)

Most people are content to admire butterflies, but there are a growing number of people who not only monitor and design gardens for butterflies, they make a career out of studying the habits and habitats of these ethereal winged insects. The Lepidopterist’s Society has compiled an extensive list of commonly asked questions and misconceptions about butterflies. The following is a sampling derived from their fact sheets.

Q. Sometimes when I touch a butterfly, a powdery dust comes off their wings. Can this hurt them or keep them from flying?

A. The colorful designs on a butterfly’s wings are created by scales. Some of these scales are shed whenever a butterfly flies, so touching a butterfly is not likely to cause damage. Butterflies can survive and fly even after a dramatic loss of scales, damage to wings, sometimes even after the loss of a wing.

Q. What are the biggest butterflies?

A. The biggest butterflies are New Guinea’s Queen Alexandra Birdwing with a wingspan up to 11 inches (280 mm), and the African Giant Swallowtail, which has extremely long wings. The largest North American butterflies, with wingspans up to 6 inches (150 mm) or so, are the Giant Swallowtail, the Tiger Swallowtail and the Two-Tailed Tiger Swallowtail. There are some moth species that exceed these wingspans.

Q. What are the smallest butterflies?

A. The smallest butterflies, with wingspans of about one half inch (12 mm), belong to the Lycaenidae family, and are among the Blue and Hairstreak types. The smallest North American butterflies are the Pygmy Blues with a wingspan of about 0.5 inch (13 mm). The smallest moths, in comparison, have a wingspan of only 2.5 mm.

Q. How many species of butterflies and moths are there?

A. The Lepidoptera are second only to beetles in the numbers of species. There are roughly 130,000 species of moths and 20,000 species of butterflies. The greatest numbers of these are found in the neo-tropical region (Mexico, Central and South America), followed by the temperate and tropical regions of Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and Indonesia. There are only about one-tenth the number of butterfly species found in the U.S., Canada and northern Mexico than those found in the neo-tropics.

Q. Which butterflies are the most common or widespread?

A. The Painted Lady or Thistle butterfly is considered the most widespread. Others include the Cabbage or Small White, the Long-Tailed Pea Blue and the Mourning Cloak.


Word Count (Sidebar Only): 367


Interviews with:

“Bright Wings of Summer,” by David G. Measures, 1976, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ

“Creating a Butterfly Garden,” by Marcus Schneck, 1993, A Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY

“Butterflies, Moths and Other Insects,” by S.A. Manning, F.L.S., Wills & Hepworth, Ltd., Loughborough, England

“Butterflies Through Binoculars – The East,” by Jeffrey Glassberg, 1999, Oxford University Press, London and New York

“Butterfly Gardening – Nectar Sources,” Yard & Garden Solutions – Around the House, University of Illinois Extension Service

(1) “Butterfly Gardening – Larval Food,” Yard & Garden Solutions – Around the House, University of Illinois Extension Service

Butterfly Seminar Registration Information, w

“Field Guide to McHenry County Butterflies,” McHenry County College publication

“Into the Wild – Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve, Cook County, IL,” by Chris Larson, Spring 1998, Chicago Wilderness magazine

“Restoring the Butterfly Tapestry,” by Doug Taron, Summer 2004, Chicago Wilderness magazine

“The Butterflies of Illinois” seminar information, Illinois Natural History Survey and University of Illinois Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences

Volunteer Registration, Chicago Park District Butterfly Monitoring Program, 2005

“Butterfly Monitoring Guidelines Summary,” Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, Mel Manner, w

“The Butterflies of Fermilab,” compiled by Tom Peterson of Fermilab, June 2003

“Butterflies of Illinois,” from “Butterflies of North America,” USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Publication

“Counting: Flying Jewels,” by William McClain, June 2002, Illinois Publications Online, Illinois Division of Natural Heritage and Northern Illinois University

“Joint Research Project to Improve Butterfly Identification System,” June 2001, Science Blog, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Superfamily Paplilionoidea,” Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, h

(2) “The Butterfly and Moth FAQ Page,” by Ernest Williams, James Adams and John Snyder, Lepidopterist’s Society, Furman University,


Treethyme said...

Hi! I want to recommend a great book: The Life Cycles of Butterflies by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards. I met them this weekend and saw a presentation they gave on this topic. They are brother and sister, and they live pretty close to me, just over the river in Kentucky. The book is fascinating!

From: Becke Davis