Butterflies are the gems of the insect world. Their graceful flight and bright colors never fail to delight children and adults alike. I still get excited when I see a colorful butterfly, especially ones that are unusual or not frequently seen.
Butterfly gardening has become very popular worldwide. There are many public gardens with butterfly garden floral displays and special greenhouses for raising and displaying native and tropical butterflies. There is a wonderful butterfly house, The Cockerell Butterfly Center, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center, and the Day Butterfly Center at Callaway Gardens in Georgia are other examples of public gardens with butterfly displays.
You don’t need a fancy facility to attract butterflies to your own yard. Large masses of color will draw in both native and migrating species, and if the right foods are present, they’ll probably hang around and visit for many days.
Provide Food and They Will Come. It is important to provide food plants not only for the adult butterfly, but also for the less-attractive larval stage. By supplying larval food plants, butterflies will be attracted to your yard to lay their eggs for future generations. Caterpillars usually need different foods than the adults, so a variety of plants will increase the diversity of butterflies that are attracted to your yard since adult butterflies will be drawn to larval food plants on which to lay their eggs.
Larvae feed on the leaves and flowers of shrubs, trees, annual and perennials, while the adults require the nectar of flowers and other sweet things such as decaying fruit and wet wood. Trees which have been riddled by yellow‑bellied sapsuckers and are bleeding are favorite feeding spots for certain butterflies such as the attractive mourning cloak.
Butterflies also like damp areas where they can sip water and dissolved salts from the mud. This is called “puddling”. You can make your own puddle by fixing a spot in the sun near your flower garden where the soil will stay damp and visiting butterflies can easily spot it. Sink a shallow tray, fill it with garden soil, and perhaps enrich it with a bit of manure. Keep the soil constantly moist. You may not attract any butterflies, but when you do see them resting elsewhere on a muddy patch of ground, you’ll know what they are doing.
Overripe fruit will also draw many butterflies. A shallow pan on the edge of the garden filled with slices of melon or banana will attract a lot of attention. Try using cantaloupe rinds clipped to a coat hanger and hung in a sunny spot for drawing butterflies. Nearly any kind of overripe fruit, especially if it is fermenting, will host a crowd of bibbers.
Some butterflies are drawn to very specific plants, while others will visit nearly any attractive flower that provides nectar. Many species need very particular plants on which to lay their eggs. For example, the beautiful orange, silver and black Gulf Fritillary butterflies lay their eggs on passionflower or maypop vines (Passiflora) and it would be unusual to not find the rusty red caterpillars munching away on the leaves or the adults flitting around. Passionflower vines are easy to grow and have beautiful flowers. Provide plenty of room for the vines to sucker and run!
Another vine which attracts a particular kind of butterfly for larval food is the Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolchia). Its peculiar flower looks kind of like a pipe. Dutchman’s Pipe attracts the large, dark-green Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly which looks very similar to the Spicebush Swallowtail which visits a wide variety of nectar plants.
Plants in the carrot family (Umbelliferae), like fennel and dill, are magnets to the Eastern Black Swallowtail for a larval food. Plant several of them as the caterpillars can devour them up quickly. Bronze fennel is a particularly attractive addition to a flower bed, so it serves double duty!
Obviously, if you are going to attract the caterpillars to get the adults, you will need to tolerate some (or a lot of) loss of foliage. The rewards are well worth it if you enjoy drawing a wide range of butterflies to your yard.
Different species will be present in different years, at various times of the year, and sometimes great migrations of one species will pass through the area over a two or three day period.
When selecting flowers for butterflies, try to get the old fashioned types, especially single-flowered types. Double flowers tend to have less nectar.
Here are a few of the many different kinds of plants which should attract butterflies to your yard:
A favorite is the Texas native perennial called mealy blue sage (Salvia farinacea). This tough plant is almost constantly in bloom spring through fall and attracts a wide variety of butterflies. Actually, many of the other Salvias or sages are favored nectar plants. Plant in full sun for best growth.
Lantana is another great perennial. Not only is lantana a good butterfly plant, but it comes in a wide range of growth habit and colors ‑ a perfect designer plant. Horticulturists at Texas A&M at Overton had a lantana variety trial a several years ago and counted over 20 species of butterflies and moths visiting the riot of color. Full sun and well-drained soil are a must to produce the most flowers.
For those of you with well‑drained soil, the butterfly weed (Asclepias) is a winner, as the name implies. Its bright orange or red to yellow flowers attract monarch butterfly adults to the nectar, and it is a crucial larval food plant for the migrating monarch. Butterfly Bush (Buddleia) is a popular perennial with large spikes of fragrant flowers that grows on a large bushy plant.
Zinnias are easy-to-grow annuals that come in a wide range of bright colors that attract many types of butterflies. Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) is another great annual.
Ixora and Pentas are favorites of many tropical types of butterflies and are frequently used in butterfly houses at botanical gardens. Grow them as annuals around your home for color all summer. Many observers report that the taller, old-fashioned varieties of Pentas have more nectar, thus more attractive to butterflies (and hummingbirds), than the newer, dwarf varieties.
Other landscape plants attractive to adult butterflies include azaleas, summer phlox, Abelia, Carolina jessamine, asters, cardinal flower, gomphrena, tall sedum, Turk’s cap, and verbena.
Heliotrope (Heliotropium) is reported to be a good nectar plant. It produces a chemical that is important in butterfly communication signals called pheromones. Heliotrope has attractive blue flowers. The native Joe‑Pye weed (Eupatorium) also contains these desirable chemicals.
This is by no means a complete list of landscape plants, simply some hints to get you started.
North Central Texas Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association (www.naba.org) posts a list on the Internet of larval food and nectar plants, along with common butterflies for the area, available at: http://www.naba.org/ftp/nctx.pdf
For more information on lists of plants for butterflies and related topics, book stores and libraries have books on butterfly gardening. A particularly good book for our region is “Butterfly Gardening for the South” by Geyata Ajilvsgi. There also field guides available for identifying butterflies to increase your gardening knowledge and pleasure.