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Attracting Butterflies | Summer 2014 Out Here Magazine

Create the right conditions for them to flourish

By the University of Illinois Extension
Photography by iStock

With careful planning, home gardeners can create an inviting habitat that will allow butterflies to flourish, says Susan Grupp, a retired horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension. "Whether you add some favorite butterfly plants to an existing garden or start with a new garden designed just for butterflies, you will be amazed how easy it is to attract them to your yard," she says.

The first thing to do is select a warm, sunny spot for the butterfly garden. "Butterflies are cold-blooded and need sunshine to warm their bodies," she explains. "Locate your garden near a wall, a fence, or even some evergreens so when they come to visit, they are not fighting a strong or chilling wind. This will help them to conserve energy."

A sheltered garden also will protect your flowers from being tossed and blown, as well, Susan says. Butterflies need a body temperature of 85 to 100 degrees to fly well. When temperatures are cooler, they warm up by basking in the sun. "Have you ever seen a butterfly perched on the ground, very still, with its wings opened wide?" Susan asks. "This allows their dark bodies to absorb the heat. Other butterflies, such as sulfurs, close their wings and turn sideways so their darker wing base absorbs the heat. Some species reflect heat from their wings to their bodies."

To help butterflies stay warm, she suggests including a resting spot that heats up, such as dark-colored rocks or boulders. They should be placed where sunlight heats them up early in the morning and/or late afternoon. "When butterflies can keep warm and fly longer, they can feed more, search longer for mates, and potentially lay more eggs. All of this can lead to more butterflies," Susan says. What doesn't lead to more butterflies are pesticides. Butterflies are vulnerable to pesticides — some kill butterfly larvae — so if you want to attract them, never use pesticides.

Attracting butterflies means understanding their four distinct life cycle stages — egg, larvae, pupae, and adult — so you can provide what they need at a particular stage. "Decide if you want to attract the adults or the larva — caterpillars — or both," Susan says. "Adults feed primarily on the nectar of a wide variety of flowers. Larva feed on leaves — and some flowers and seed — of a more limited range of plants." Attract as many adults as possible by planting large groups of flowers, she suggests. "Include plants that bloom throughout the growing season so butterflies have a choice from spring to fall," she says. "Also, masses of flowers tend to attract more visitors than small plantings."

Adults visit many kinds of flowers, but some flowers seem to be "butterfly magnets." "In my yard, butterfly bush, purple coneflower, Joe-Pye weed, black-eyed Susan, lantana, Brazilian verbena, and sedum 'Autumn Joy' are literally covered with butterflies on a sunny day," Susan says. "For caterpillars — the larva stage — you will need to choose plants which attract the adult for egg laying. Adults are choosy and specific," she says. "Don't forget; caterpillars will be chewing on foliage, so remember to plant enough for you and the caterpillars."




Black Swallowtail: Carrots, parsley, dill

Tiger Swallowtail: Wild cherry, birch, poplar, ash, apple trees, tulip tree

Monarch Butterfly: Milkweed, butterfly weed

Buckeye: Snapdragon

Viceroy: Pussy willow, plums, cherries