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Monarch butterfly

For success in your butterfly garden, learn about butterflies—identify the adults and caterpillars, their food preferences, and where they live.

Butterflies have long fascinated humans. The ancient Egyptians, and later the Romans, believed they were symbols of the human soul. To make a wish come true, Native Americans suggested whispering it to a butterfly. They were messengers of the Great Spirit. Some native cultures of Mexico and the western United States believed butterflies were symbols of fertile ground. Today, tourists flock to the Monterey peninsula and central Mexico’s Transvolcanic Belt to see the monarch masses overwintering there.

To invite butterflies to your garden, you will first need to understand their life cycle. Butterflies have four stages of development: egg, caterpillar (or larva), chrysalis, and winged adult. Accommodate the needs of each stage for the greatest success.

Adult butterflies lay eggs on host plants so the larvae will have the necessary food to mature. At the end of this larval stage, they need a sturdy, protected place to attach and form the chrysalis. Adults survive eating sweet flower nectar.

Accommodating Each Stage

Host Plants

Most butterfly caterpillars have specific food preferences. Monarchs, for example, only lay eggs on milkweed. Black swallowtails lay eggs on any member of the carrot family, such as parsley, fennel, and dill, but no other plants. Once a caterpillar eats its first plant meal, it cannot survive on any other plant. See table 1 for host plants for different butterfly species.

Use a good reference book to identify which caterpillars become which butterflies. For example, by learning that parsley worms become black swallowtails, you will know not to kill those caterpillars. Plant extra host plants if you need any for your own use.

 

Table 1. Suggested Food Plants for Larval Stage Butterflies

Plant SpeciesAdult Butterfly Species

Aster (Aster species)

Pearly crescentspot

Cherry laurel, black cherry, wild plum (Prunus species)

Tiger swallowtail

Clover (Trifolium species) and other legumesSulfur and gray hairstreak

Dill, carrot, parsley, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace  (Umbelliferae, parsley family)

Black swallowtail

Dogwood (Cornus species) and viburnum

Spring azure

Elm (Ulmus species) and willow

Morning cloak, viceroy, and question mark

Hackberry (Celtis species)Hackberry butterfly

Milkweed (Asclepias species)

Monarch

Mustard familyCabbage and checkered white

Native grasses

Various skippers

Oak (Quercus species)

Banded hairstreak

Passion flower (Passiflora species)

Gulf fritillary and zebra longwing

Paw paw (Asimina species)Zebra swallowtail

Pearly everlasting (Antennaria, Anaphalis, andGnaphalium)

American painted lady

Pipevine (Aristolochia species)

Pipevine swallowtail

Plantain (Plantago species) and snapdragon

Buckeye

Sassafrass (Sassafrass occidentalis)

Palamedes swallowtail

Senna and coffeeweed (Cassia species)

Cloudless giant sulfur

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Spicebush swallowtail

Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Red-spotted purple

 

Pesticides

To avoid harming butterflies, which are insects, be careful when applying chemicals on or near plants. Spot treating pest insects with insecticidal soaps or oils leaves no chemical residue to harm caterpillars. You can handpick some pests, such as beetles. A regular, hard blast of water can remove other plant pests, such as aphids, that cause unplanned plant damage.

Another advantage of decreased garden chemical use is the presence of other garden helpers, which pesticides can kill. These beneficial critters, such as spiders, lacewings, ladybugs, and ground beetles, eat the plant pests. Other pollinators, such as honey bees, also benefit from reduced chemical use.

Location

Butterfly gardens should be in full sun. All insects are cold blooded. Their body temperature depends on the environmental temperature. Enhance the sun’s warming energy with stepping stones or a gravel path. Butterfly adults will bask in these areas to warm themselves from the radiant heat. Your garden will also benefit because most of the plants used by butterflies grow best in full sun.

Shelters

Include a few blooming shrubs in your butterfly garden or have evergreens nearby for shelter. Butterflies will hide in these areas on cloudy days or at night and find protection from the rain and wind. Your garden might even be located near the garage, gazebo, or garden shed. These permanent structures also give shelter and protection.

Chrysalids also benefit from these places. After a couple of weeks (varies by butterfly species), the caterpillars seek something sturdy for chrysalid attachment. If the host plant is sturdy, such as fennel, they’ll likely just use a rigid, inner stem. However, not all host plants satisfy this need. If you plan accordingly, woody stems, benches, arbors, or other solid supports will be ornamented with various chrysalids by July.

Puddles

Male butterfly adults need to puddle. They obtain water and minerals from the shallows of these wet places. To make a permanent puddle, bury a shallow pan of wet gravel or sand to its rim. Fill it with liquids, such as fruit drinks or plain tap water. You might even sprinkle it periodically with a liquid fertilizer when boosting the garden plants. Some butterflies, such as the viceroy, like to drink from rotten fruit. Locate the compost pile nearby, and allow rotting fruit to occasionally stay on top.

Flowers

Flowers provide the nectar food adult butterflies need. Butterfly season in Alabama is early spring to late fall. Choose a variety of plants, including annuals, perennials, and woody shrubs, to have flowers continuously through the seasons. This plant diversity also attracts a greater variety of butterfly visitors. Many of Alabama’s native butterflies often visit purple, red, orange, and yellow flowers.

How many insects have you noticed flying in a straight line? Remember, butterflies are insects. Their compound eyes have poor vision for distinguishing tiny details. Large sweeps of each flower are most attractive to these near-sighted creatures.

Also, consider their mouthparts. Butterflies suck liquid food with a strawlike mouth. Tubular-shaped flowers are ideally suited. Butterflies prefer clusters of tubular or flat-topped flowers, but remember to have variety. Different species have different preferences for flower size. Compound flowers, such as verbena, daisies, and butterfly bushes, offer numerous nectar containers for sipping in a single stop.

Nectar

Butterflies have a highly developed sense of smell in their antennae. They seek flowers with rich nectar. Surprisingly, some of our newer plant varieties have little sugary nectar because of the breeding and selection process for other plant traits. Choose open-pollinated, fragrant, flowering plants with a single rather than a double petal row. Fragrance is sometimes a nectar signal that you can easily detect.

Keys to choosing flowers in your butterfly garden are a long bloom time, a variety of plants, large areas of a single color, tubular-shaped and compound flowers, and rich nectar. See table 2 for recommended flowering plants.

 

Table 2. Nectar Sources for Adult Butterflies

PlantFlower ColorBloom Period

Shrubs

Azalea

variablespring

Buddleia

variablesummer to fall

Sumac

whitespring

Vaccinium spp.

white, light pinkspring to early summer

Viburnum

whitespring

Abelia

white, lavendersummer

Lantana

variablesummer (this plant may be invasive in south Alabama)

Annuals

Alyssum

violet, whitesummer to fall

Candytuft

white, pinkspring to summer

Cosmos

white, pink, red, yellowsummer

Gaillardia

yellow, orangesummer to fall

Impatiens

variablesummer to fall

Marigold

yellow, orangesummer to fall

Scabiosa

blue, rose, whitesummer to fall

Verbena

variablesummer to fall (some annual, some perennial)

Zinnia

variablesummer to fall

Pansy, viola, pinnola

variablefall to spring

Pentas

pink, purple, white, redsummer

Perennials

Aster

white, lavender, yellowsummer to fall

Bee balm

red, white, pinksummer

Butterfly weed (milkweed)

orange, pink, red, yellowsummer

Salvias

variablesummer to fall

Catmint

lavendersummer

Phlox

pink, lavender, whitespring, summer to fall

Primrose

variablespring

Purple coneflower

purple, whitemidsummer

Sedum spectabile

pinklate summer

Boneset

white, purplelate summer

Black-eyed susan

yellowsummer

Blazing star

purplesummer

Dandelion

yellowspring to fall

Goldenrod

yellowlate summer

Joe-Pye weed

lavenderlate summer

Yarrow

variablespring to early summer

 

References

Brock, Jim P. and Kenn Kaufman. 2003. Butterflies of North America. Kaufman Focus Guides.

Glassberg, Jeffrey. 1999. Butterflies Through Binoculars: The East.

Potter-Springer, Wendy. 1990. “Grow a Butterfly Garden.” Storey Country Wisdom Bulletin A-114.

Pyle, Robert Michael. 1981. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies.

Tekulsky, Mathew. 1986. The Butterfly Garden: Turning Your Garden, Window Box, or Backyard into a Beautiful Home for Butterflies.

Wagner, David L. 2005. Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History. Princeton Field Guides.

Wright, Amy Bartlett, and Roger Tory Peterson. 1998. Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars of North America.

 

Download a PDF of Butterfly Gardens, ANR-1290.

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