Weeds and wildflowers are the habitats of many butterflies. You can simulate their natural environment by establishing and maintaining a piece of land as a butterfly garden.
The butterfly life cylce depends upon food for both adults and larval forms.
Favorite adult foods include nectar from milkweed, thistle, daisies, dandelion, asters, and clover. Many lay eggs among the weeds on which the larvae feed. Some butterflies, however, depend on woodlands during part of their life cycle. Trees, shrubs, and other woodland plants are frequently needed by their larvae.
A butterfly garden is an adventure which calls for devotion. Here are some basic steps for launching such a venture:
Know your local butterflies
These local species are the ones you can attract.Learn the names of the local butterflies, their life cycles, behavior, and the foods they prefer. Discover the places where they hibernate, seek cover, and pupate.
Identify plants that are suitable for egg laying, larval food, and adult feeding. Usually plants used for egg laying are also eaten by the larvae. Butterfly populations are strongly governed by the availability of larval food.
The females of many species mate and lay eggs immediately after emerging from the pupa. Therefore, blossoms are more critical to our enjoyment of these butterflies than it is to the perpetuation of their life cycles.
References such as Peterson's Field Guides on Butterflies and Wildflowers can be quite helpful.
Set aside the land
If the area selected is already somewhat natural, few alterations maybe required.
Determine which useful plants are already present. Then, from observations decide which plants are still needed to promote the life cycles of those desired butterflies. Situating the butterfly garden near a woodland may attract species requiring trees for larval food.
Plant, assess, replant, reassess
An established butterfly garden will have eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults all present throughout the entire season. Therefore, their needs for blooming wildflowers, cover, and larval food must be met.
Gather the desired seeds in bags and sow them in the fall. Make sure the seeds are sown in growing conditions similar to those in which you found the mother plant (dry, wet, sunny, etc.). Introducing plants that are unsuitable to your soil and climatic conditions is a waste of time.
Careful analysis of your observations may lead to replanting and further assessment. You may have to move a certain group of plants to establish a different sun-and-shade relationship for the butterflies. Just because a certain butterfly was not attracted to your garden this year does not mean your method has failed.
Perhaps next year that type will appear. The success of your garden requires constant evaluation.
Pay attention to special needs
Not all adults live solely on nectar. Compost piles, sap from wounds, and carrion supply much of the adult needs for certain species. Puddles and the moist soil surrounding them are extremely popular with some species.
Both gregarious butterflies, forming "puddle clubs," and more solitary ones gather at these watering holes.
Mow the area in parts
An open area may undergo succession, becoming bushy and then changing to a woodland. To keep it a meadow, mowing may be required. Mow only part of the area in any one year. This alternation will allow continuation of the established life cycles in the unmowed part.
Adult butterflies are pollinators and rarely garden pests. However, their larvae, like other insect larvae, are voracious.
The larvae of the European cabbage butterfly consume cabbage anticipated for the table. The larvae of the black swallowtail, giant swallowtail, alfalfa butterfly, and gray hairstreak can be pests on occasion.
Even with limited available space, you can still create a world of butterflies.
Certain larval foods make attractive borders. The larvae of some of the most beautiful butterflies feed from trees you may have in your yard (willow, oak, birch, and tulip, for example). Certain domesticated plants (buddleia, scabiosa , crimson arbrieta, orchid tree, Mexican fire vine, lantana, and flame of the woods) can be planted for both decoration and adult feeding.
Nectar-rich vines that adorn archways and fences will expand the garden upward.
The longer you butterfly-garden, the more accurately you can assess the needs of your butterflies. There is no magic formula. It is a new field and much of the needed information will come from butterfly gardeners.
The Xerxes Society (Dr. Larry Orsak, 201 Wellman Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720) publishes a newsletter and pamphlets on butterfly gardening.