My last article covered the essential ingredients needed to establish a backyard wildlife habitat: food, water, refuge/shelter, and breeding habitat. Let’s now focus on how to attract butterflies to your garden.
Butterflies fluttering from flower to flower not only provide color and animation that makes a garden come alive, they also provide essential pollination services to your flowering plants. If you wish to attract butterflies to your garden you will need to cater for all the different life stages of these fascinating insects, including: providing protected areas for them to lay their eggs, plants that provide food for butterfly larvae to feed on during the caterpillar stage, refuges for them to form into a chrysalis, as well as flowering plants that provide a source of nectar for adult butterflies to feed on.
Siting Your Butterfly Garden
Butterflies prefer sunny, wind-free areas, so ideally choose an area of your garden that is sheltered from prevailing winds and receives 6 hours of sunlight a day. To maximize your enjoyment, choose an area that will be easy for you to view your butterfly visitors, such as an area adjacent to an entrance gate, garden bench, vegetable garden, or a window of a room that is frequently used.
Because most species of butterflies and flowering plants native to an area have co-evolved and are dependent on one another for reproduction and ultimately their survival, it is essential to incorporate native flowering plants that are indigenous to your area into your butterfly garden. Native flowering plants will provide adult butterflies with nectar, as well as foliage for caterpillars to feed on.
Type and color – Adult butterflies are attracted to brightly colored flowers, particularly red, orange, yellow, purple and pink blossoms with short floral tubes that are either clustered or flat-topped. Simple is best – avoid showy ornamental varieties with double-petals, as these are more difficult for butterflies to access.
Plant Sun-loving Plants – As adult butterflies tend to only feed in sun, plants selected to supply nectar to adult butterflies should thrive in full sun. Plant these flowering plants in a sunny area that gets sunshine from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. If you don’t have a sunny patch of garden to spare, you can include flowing nectar plants in your vegetable garden.
Continuity is Key – As butterflies require nectar throughout their adult life, it is important to always have some plants flowering. Try to select and plant species that bloom at different times to encourage butterflies to keep coming back to your nectar source.
Insecticide-free Gardening – Insecticides by their very nature are intended to kill insects – butterflies are no exception. Keep insecticides away from your butterfly garden, and preferably don’t use them in other areas of your garden either. Even relatively ‘harmless’ biological pesticides, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, will kill butterflies in the caterpillar phase of their lifecycle.
Provide Food for Caterpillars – Don’t neglect the caterpillars – if they do not complete this phase of their lifecycle successfully they will not metamorphosize into adult butterflies. By incorporating caterpillar food sources into your garden you can add variety to your garden and at the same time you may attract some less common butterfly species. Unlike some moth caterpillars that are notoriously destructive, butterfly caterpillars tend to inflict far less damage in a garden as they are more selective in the plant leaves they feed on. These picky eating habits restricts damage to one or two plant species, but the flip-side is that they will often starve to death if their host plant is not available.
Find out which butterflies are native to your area and select native plants that provide for their needs – the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation provides lists of plants and butterflies native to the Pacific Northwest to help you plant accordingly.
Butterflies enjoy basking in the sun as this warms up the blood in their wings in preparation for flight. Place flat rocks strategically to provide an accessible basking and resting area for your resident butterflies. If you have a prowling cat you can place a flat stone inside a shallow bird bath to prevent your basking butterflies from falling prey to the resident feline.
Butterfly Puddling Area
Assign a patch of your butterfly garden to construct a butterfly puddling area – a moistened muddy patch that provides a source of water and minerals for butterflies. This can be under a tap or other naturally damp area; or you can bury a bucket, planter or dish filled with sand, watering frequently to keep it moist. Again, if cats are an issue, place this in an elevated position, preferably surrounded by water, so that it is difficult for the resident cat to sneak up on your butterflies as they frolic in their puddling area.
Once your butterfly garden is established, you will enjoy endless hours watching graceful butterflies flutter by in all their splendor.