• Creating a Butterfly Garden

    by Dana Goforth

    “Just living is not enough,” said the butterfly, “one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.” ―Hans Christian Andersen

    Growing up I somewhat rural California, I had many opportunities to get up close and personal with nature. One of my first memories was of finding a magical chrysalis hanging from a tenacious weed poking through a sidewalk crack. When I was nose-to-nose with the find, I was amazed to see faint markings of a butterfly wing shimmering just below the surface. This happened outside my kindergarten room. I soon discovered that the pale green pod was home to a butterfly and the weed, well everyone knew it as the weed that oozed stingy milk stuff from the fragile stem. This “milkweed,” I later learned, is the host plant for monarch butterflies. A host plant is where a butterfly lays her eggs. The plant provides nourishment for the larvae or caterpillar as well as for the newly hatched butterfly. For the monarch, the chemical toxins in milkweed provide a natural defense for the butterfly during its life cycle: a fine example of the symbiotic relationship between plant and insect.

    A successful butterfly garden should begin with a host plant. For monarchs, this would be Asclepias tuberosa, derived from Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing. It has bright flower clusters that provide both food and shelter for the various stages of development. Host plants for other local species include grasses, mallows, and oak trees.

    Next comes butterfly food. Most flowers provide nectar for butterflies but the large monarch has special needs. Cluster flowers, such as yarrow (Achillea spp.), phlox (Phlox spp.), verbena (Verbena spp.), and goldenrod (Solidago spp.) offer stability for this large butterfly to comfortably latch on to and feed. Nectar producing daisy-like flowers provide a foundation for the monarch to comfortably consume a yummy snack. Aster species as well as dahlias, zinnias, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), coreopsis, yellow cosmos (Cosmos sulfureus) and rudbeckia flowers are ideal landing platforms as well. Spiky flowers, including cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and columbines (Aquilegia spp.), are easy for butterflies to grasp with their little paws. Many of the plants mentioned, readily re-seed year after year. If you want a larger plant or bush that offers a dramatic invitation to butterflies, try pride of madera (Echium spp.), chaste tree (Vitex spp.), and of course the butterflybush (Buddleia tuberosa). Most of these plants need full sun so plant accordingly. Monarchs and other butterflies will adore you. You might even see a hummingbird or two!

    Addressing the Challenges

    Here in Pacific Grove, where every other block seems to have its own unique micro-climate, growing sun-loving plants in the ground may be a challenge. Container planting can be fun and liven up an unused, sunny space. To create a nectar garden in pots, consider the height, color, and water needs of the plants and group them together for a dramatic presence. For instance, purple aster and yellow coreopsis will grow well in the same planter. Add a trailing plant such as white alyssum or lobelia to compliment. We have fairly temperate weather and many of the summer flowers continue blooming well into late fall especially if the spent flowers are removed. There are some early blooming plants which do well in containers and will tolerate our mild days, that are also favorites of local butterflies. Lovely purple chive (Allium schoenoprasum), candytuft (Iberis spp.), spider milkweed (Asclepias viridis), and siberian wallflower (Erysimum x allionii) are some personal favorites. When choosing your “large” butterfly nectar plants, remember that daisy-like shapes, spikes of closely placed flowers, and flat or round-topped clusters of small flowers are ideal for feeding.

    Finally, monarchs seem to prefer purple or pink flowers but have been spied dining on orange and yellow one as well! Experiment in your garden and see who visits!

    Going the Extra Mile

    My grandmother had an amazing butterfly garden. Her plants were so robust, we joked that there was more manure in the ground than soil. One of our favorite places in her garden was a cracked, blue and green ceramic birdbath. The birdbath itself was fairly unremarkable and didn’t hold much water, but what grandma put in it was fun. In the summer, we often had picnics by the flowerbeds in the backyard. Of course, this included red, drippy watermelon. One slice for each of us, and one slice for the old birdbath. Yup, the birdbath. By the end of the day, the watermelon placed in the birdbath would be covered with butterflies, usually monarchs. I loved trying to get them to hop on my finger and lick off the sticky juice. I still can’t look at a watermelon without having this special memory pop in!

    Enjoy making a butterfly garden. There is nothing like taking a moment to slow down and watch the dance of a humble butterfly!

    posted to Cedar Street Times on March 29, 2013

    Topics: Diggin' It

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