Butterflies add surprise, beauty, color, and motion to a garden. Why not invite them into your back yard? Planting a butterfly garden not only attracts these beautiful creatures but is also a great way for children to learn about the life cycle of butterflies and develop an interest in nature.
Luring and maintaining a butterfly population requires a full-sun gardens with nectar-producing plants for adult butterflies, plants for caterpillar (larva) food, a shallow pool of water, and places for butterflies to rest and shelter.
You need only a small space for a successful butterfly habitat. Set your butterfly garden in a warm, sunny location. Fences or a windbreak of shrubs or trees will protect butterflies from summer winds. Butterflies need sunlight to warm their flight muscles. Flat stones or boards placed in a sunny area of the garden will give them an ideal resting site.
Attracting butterflies to your garden is a matter of planting the right flowers. Sweet, pungent, or highly fragrant blooms; colors such as red, purple, orange, yellow, and pink; and simple, tubular, and open flowers are some of the characteristics of a plant that will attract butterflies. Make sure your garden includes an assortment of plants for continuous blooms. Bloom duration, time of flowering, plant size, and flower color are all important considerations. The best choices are native prairie, wetland, and woodland plants.
Before you design your butterfly garden, familiarize yourself with the life cycles and food preferences of the butterflies in your area. Don’t forget that a butterfly isn’t always a butterfly—it spends its early life as a caterpillar. To make your garden a home for butterflies, you need to feed the caterpillars, too. Each species of butterfly has its preferred adult and larval food. An adult butterfly will spend several hours selecting a specific leaf on a plant that will be the best for its offspring.
Adult butterflies feed only on liquids. Large masses of one plant are best for attracting butterflies. Although butterflies are drawn by both color and scent, they have a difficult time picking out individual flowers. Native plants that provide nectar sources for butterflies include butterfly weed, aster, joe-pye weed, goldenrod, phlox, ironweed, coneflower, redbud, and sumac. Butterflies are also attracted to dandelion, clover, native honeysuckle, milkweed, thistle, bee balm, butterfly bush, sedum, and alfalfa. Some butterflies find nourishment in overripe fruit, fermenting sap flows, animal dung, bird droppings, and honeydew.
Caterpillars eat leaves and sometimes flower and seeds. Often picky eaters, they may feed only on a specific plant or group of plants. Plants desirable to butterfly larvae include butterfly weed, dill, fennel, parsley, clover, alfalfa, milkweed, thistle, Queen Anne’s lace, violet, and aster. The trees and shrubs preferred by larvae are elm, willow, poplar, birch, hackberry, apple, cherry, ash, spicebush, lilac, and tulip tree. Most plants will tolerate some caterpillar feeding without a noticeable decrease in flowering or fruiting.
A clay saucer makes a great receptacle for a shallow pool of water. Cover the bottom of the saucer with sand and add a rack or twig to provide a resting place for butterflies. Or try burying a shallow lid in the ground and filling it with mixture of sand and soil, then periodically saturating the mixture with water.
Because caterpillars and butterflies are sensitive to pesticides, you should avoid using these chemicals in and around your butterfly garden. Not only will your butterfly visitors be safer, but you’ll also reap the benefit of learning to live without pesticides.
The Field Guide to Butterflies of Illinois, written by John Bouseman and James Sternburg, contains descriptions and photos of butterflies found in Illinois, as well as their preferred food sources and habitats.
This book is available from the Illinois Natural History Survey, 217-333-6880.