Butterflies are some of the most familiar and beautiful of all insects. There are many different species that visit our gardens including the monarch, painted lady, swallowtails, and the viceroy. They are fascinating and beautiful to observe while playing an important role in pollination. Butterflies will make your garden their home if you provide for their basic needs: food, shelter, water and a place to lay their eggs.
A variety of both nectar plants for adults and host plants for caterpillars planted in a sunny location will attract butterflies to your garden. Many perennials are among their favorites including black-eyed Susans, pentas, coreopsis, verbena, ironweed, and milkweed. A multitude of annuals also attract butterflies such as cosmos, sunflowers, zinnias and marigolds. Lantana, an annual in our area but a perennial further south, is one of their favorites. Also, many popular plants grown as herbs, such as parsley, dill, and fennel, provide a source of food for the caterpillars.
These plants have flowers that produce nectar, which is the primary food source for most species of butterflies. They prefer pink, red, purple, orange, or yellow flowers.
Large masses of a single color are more attractive to butterflies than plantings with many colors mixed together. Their preference is for plants that have short clusters of tubular flowers or ones with many flat petals.
Some species of adult butterflies are very particular about the type of plants they will lay their eggs on while others are not. For example, the monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The reason is that their caterpillars feed on the plants which also have a toxin in their sap. They toxins collect in their bodies and remain in the adult caterpillar. This helps protect them against predators. Other species of butterflies will lay their eggs on a variety of plants.
Butterflies prefer sunny areas protected from the wind. The garden should receive a minimum of six hours of sunlight daily. Since butterflies are cold blooded organisms, on chilly mornings they seek places to warm up their bodies. They are attracted to reflective surfaces like stones or even concrete, where they spread their wings, which absorb the sun's warmth.
Sometimes butterflies are observed gathering in groups on wet soil. This activity is called "puddling" and they are doing it to obtain moisture and minerals from the soil. You can create a favorable place in the garden for "puddling." Use a shallow pan, fill it with sand and add water to keep it moist. The butterflies will appreciate this added feature.
Remember butterflies and caterpillars are insects. They are susceptible to insecticides as much as insects. Avoid using chemicals in the garden. Some alternatives to using pesticides include spot treating infested plants with insecticidal soaps, removing the insects from the plant material by hand, or simply doing nothing and accepting them as a natural component of the garden.
Butterfly gardens are interesting to plant and observe. Watching them moving from flower to flower can be a peaceful and enjoyable experience. These gardens are a worthy addition to the home landscape.
Timothy Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or firstname.lastname@example.org.