View from the Garden: Growing Butterflies in the Garden

Monarch butterfly on a flower
Monarch butterfly

Butterflies are the sparklers in the garden. They seem to kiss the plants as they continuously flutter and land. They look like flying jewels while they are actually working very hard to lay eggs and find food. In years past, the garden was alive with many varieties all working at the same time. Two years ago a large group of buddleia were almost covered with monarchs. Last year I saw four monarchs on the same buddleia, two morning cloaks and two yellow swallow tails in my garden…more of the small varieties… and that was all! This year, as I choose plants for new gardens and additions to existing ones, I will choose butterfly-friendly ones.

Monarchs are especially in decline. This last year has seen the greatest reduction of monarchs, returning to their winter hibernation location in Mexico since record keeping began in 1993. In 1996 the swarm covered trees on 44.5 acres. Last year it covered only 1.65 acres!

A major stage of their amazing and complicated life cycle happens in the Midwest and Great Plains. Thousands and thousands of acres of genetically modified (GM) corn and soy beans are planted in this vast area. One aspect of these kinds of seeds is to make them resistant to herbicides like Round up. This was supposed to allow farmers to use less herbicide but because weeds have become resistant to the herbicide, farmers are using more at stronger rates. So many acres are planted in order to make as much money as possible, that farmers have plowed more and more farmable land leaving less and less land for native plants.

Severe cold snaps, unusually heavy rains and droughts have significantly interfered in monarchs’ life cycles. Roadside mowing has eliminated milkweed not only in the Midwest but also here.

Despite growing awareness of and resistance to GMO crops, it is improbable that farming techniques involving them will change soon, but we can offer a hospitable environment for monarchs and other butterflies in our area.

Butterflies need specific plants on which to lay their eggs and to provide food for the emerging caterpillars. Monarchs eat only milkweed. Swallowtails eat dill, fennel, parsley, carrots and rue (a terrific garden plant). You have probably seen these green and black caterpillars if you grow these plants. Hopefully you have not killed them thinking they were harmful to the plant.

Painted ladies like hollyhocks. Cabbage whites like nasturtiums…I always plant some in the vegetable garden…and cleome. Don’t kill a caterpillar unless you know that it’s a harmful variety. Beneficial caterpillars do eat holes in some plants but what is better…hole-free plant leaves or butterflies?

And most importantly…do not use chemicals in the garden on lawn! For butterflies, bees, birds—in fact for all of the flora and fauna in the landscape—it’s necessary for us to reconsider what is beautiful.

In addition to specific plants on which caterpillars must feed, adults feed on many varieties of plants and especially flowers. This is the fun part of helping butterflies. Because they feed on innumerable varieties of flowers, the more flowers we plant, the better it is for them. I did some research to find some of their favorites only to find that many of their favorites are not my favorites! I really don’t like Joe Pye weed…I don’t know why…I just don’t like it. I also don’t like asters, liatris, coreopsis, black-eyed susans, monarda, milkweed, goldenrod or gaillardia. I have, however, seen these plants used very effectively. There are several varieties of black-eyed susans, monarda, milkweed and goldenrod. The English love goldenrod. I must, (AND I WILL!) for the sake of butterflies, overcome my dislike and begin to use them. What’s more important…no monarda or butterflies?

However, I will probably use more of my favorites: hollyhocks, calamintha, phlox, Echinacea, lavender, lilies, perovskia, buddleia, roses and more. Butterflies like most annuals and many vegetable flowers.

At this time in the winter, I begin looking at plants in catalogues and online. I love to find ones that are new to me. And this year I will look with butterflies as a priority.

Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067.

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