Gardening & Certification A Brief Introduction to Butterfly Gardening
by Bob Cairns
We are interested in attracting butterflies to our yard for two reasons, to admire their beauty as they flutter around, and to entice them to lay eggs on our plants so that more butterflies are created.
You can certainly attract some butterflies to your yard if you have a nice collection of flowers, but, if you really want to create a butterfly haven, you must lure the butterflies to lay their eggs on your plants.
Each type of female adult butterfly is attracted to a specific type of plant on which to lay her eggs. If you want to attract that species of butterfly to your yard you must have that type of plant.
For example, one of the most common butterflies in Michigan is the Monarch, a beautiful black and orange creature that will only lay her eggs on plants of the milkweed family.
Milkweed is a native Michigan plant that can be found everywhere. However, milkweed plants for your garden should be purchased from a reputable nursery that we can recommend, or obtained from a knowledgeable person, such as one of the butterfly people in our club. They should not be dug up in a roadside ditch.
Follow good design practice and plan an odd-numbered clump of milkweed plants in your yard – 3, 5 or 7. The bigger the clump the better because Monarchs are near-sighted creatures who will find it easier to spot large splotches of milkweed color. The Monarchs will find your milkweed plants and lay their eggs on them.
The eggs will hatch into caterpillars. Each caterpillar will grow in size until it is ready to transform into a butterfly. It builds a special enclosure, called a chrysalis, in which the transformation takes place. The chrysalis looks like a cocoon. A moth makes a cocoon, a butterfly makes a chrysalis. After a few days a Monarch butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis.
This all occurs if the eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalises are not consumed by the many predators that like to eat them for lunch. It is estimated that less than 1% of teh eggs make it to butterflies – that is fewer than one out of 100 eggs survive.
It is important to understand that starting right after their birth the Monarch caterpillars will eat the milkweed plant on which they were born. Milkweed is called the “host plant for the Monarch butterfly.” It is the only plant on which Monarch eggs are laid and the only plant which is consumed by Monarch caterpillars as they grow.
Once the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis it will fly around looking for flowers in bloom from which it will take nectar as food. There are many types of common flowers from which butterflies will take food. These are called “nectar plants.” A good butterfly garden contains both host and nectar plants.
That summarizes the basic elements of butterfly gardening. Of course, there are lots more things to learn if you really want to get serious about attracting butterflies to your yard.
For example, you can find out which plants are host plants for other species of butterflies and plant those in your yard. Brenda Dziedzic, our fearless leader, has a handout that lists most common butterfly species and the host plants they use.
One of the additional things you can do, and this is where the fun really begins, is increase the eggs’ chances of survival by collecting them from your plants and raising them in simple containers in your house.
Most of the additional information about attracting and raising butterflies can be found in a book such as “The Family Butterfly Book,” which is available at many bookstores or on-line.