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Wednesday, April 22, 2009 03:02 pm

How to lure insect beauties to your butterfly garden

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Butterflies add surprise, beauty, color and motion to a garden. Why not invite them to your backyard? Butterflies are nature’s decoration. Planting a butterfly garden is a great way for children to learn about the life cycle of butterflies and learn to share an interest in nature.

Luring and maintaining butterflies requires full-sun gardens with nectar-producing plants for adult butterflies, plants for caterpillar (larva) food, a shallow pool of water, a place for resting, and shelter such as trees or shrubs.

A butterfly habitat only needs a small amount of space. Place a butterfly garden in a warm, sunny location, which is sheltered from the wind. Fences or a windbreak of shrubs or trees will protect butterflies from summer winds. Butterflies are cold-blooded and need sunlight to warm their flight muscles. Flat stones or boards placed in a sunny area of the garden will provide butterflies with an ideal resting site.

Attracting butterflies is a matter of planting the right flowers. Characteristics of a plant that will attract butterflies include: sweet, pungent or highly fragrant flowers; flower colors such as red, purple, orange, yellow and pink; and simple, tubular and open flowers. Gardens should include an assortment of plants for continuous blooms. Duration of bloom, time of flowering, plant size and flower color are all important considerations. The best choices are native prairie, wetland or woodland plants.

Before designing a butterfly garden, become familiar with life cycles and food preferences of butterflies in the area. Don’t forget that a butterfly isn’t always a butterfly. First it is an egg, then a caterpillar, a chrysalis (pupa) and finally a butterfly. Therefore, food for caterpillars must be included in a well-designed butterfly garden. Adult butterflies will visit gardens that provide nectar, but will not stay and make this garden a home without food for larvae. Each species of butterfly has its preferred adult and larvae food. An adult butterfly will spend several hours selecting a specific leaf on a plant that will be best for their babies.

Large masses of one plant are best for attracting butterflies. They are attracted by both color and scent, but butterflies have a difficult time picking out individual flowers. Native plants that provide a nectar source for butterflies include: butterfly weed, aster, Joe-pye weed, goldenrod, phlox, ironweed, coneflower, redbud and sumac. Butterflies are also attracted to dandelions, clover, native honeysuckle, milkweed, thistle, bee balm, butterfly bush, sedum and alfalfa.

Caterpillars eat leaves and sometimes flower and seeds. They are often picky eaters and may only feed 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, violets and aster. Trees and shrubs that larvae prefer are elm, willow, poplar, birch, hackberry, apple, cherry, ash, spicebush, lilac and tuliptree. Keep in mind that caterpillars have chewing mouthparts and they will eat plants. Most plants will tolerate some caterpillar feeding without noticeable decrease in flowering and fruiting.

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