Butterfly Garden Progress Report Part 1 of 2

As the peak season for my butterfly garden begins to wind down, I find myself contemplating how it has performed over the past few years. It certainly has looked more impressive in each successive year, and most of the plants have continued to thrive. Yet, I don’t think that’s quite how I should measure the success of such a project. I don’t mean to say that I shouldn’t derive any satisfaction from the growth of the plants themselves – I certainly indulge in that sense of pride and I think that’s fine. The goal of this garden, though, is to support local biodiversity. If it’s not doing so, it’s failing and requires some analysis and change.

Unfortunately I can’t do a particularly scientific investigation. I’ve no control, since I didn’t do any kind of exhaustive analysis of the life in my yard before the butterfly garden. I’m still learning to identify a lot of the local fauna and so any trend of increase would be suspect. All I can really do is make a list of living things I have identified in my yard and record cases of animals exploiting the butterfly garden. Lack of scientific rigor aside, that’s not nothing!

Butterflies and Moths

Seems like the obvious place to start, no?  So far I have managed to count sixteen species of butterflies and seven species of moths in my yard since beginning the garden. That seems like a fairly small number, but there are certainly quite a few unidentified moths and some unidentified butterflies who have visited. Moths can be particularly vexing – the Maryland Biodiversity Project lists 2,529 species reported in Maryland alone.

I can only confirm one species of butterfly, the monarch (Danaus plexippus), as having completed a full life cycle in the butterfly garden. many others have taken nectar and I’ve spotted quite a few unidentified caterpillars, but monarchs are the champs.

Above we have a complete monarch life cycle all documented within my garden: egg, hatchling caterpillar, late instar caterpillar, pupa, and adult. Thank you milkweeds!

Probably the most common visitors, or at least the most commonly seen due to their large, ostentatious nature are tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus). Their host plant is the tuliptree, which is abundant in the area. I don’t get to watch these guys grow but the adults are beautiful enough on their own.

I’ve also seen a handful of black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes). These guys can be tricky to distinguish from the dark morph female tiger swallowtails, but a ventral view can cinch it for you. Black swallowtails have a second row of orange spots which the dark morph tigers lack. Black swallowtails feed on dill, parsley, fennel, Queen Anne’s Lace, and related plants.

Papilio polyxenes
Black swallowtail. This one’s a little tattered, but I got a good look at the two rows of orange spots on the underwing.

Some butterflies aren’t quite as exciting as others, and here I move from the largest, showiest bunch to the most boring: the cabbage white (Pieris rapae). Next to the tiger swallowtails these are probably the butterflies I see the most, and I usually don’t even bother trying to photograph them. Nevertheless, they are butterflies so they most certainly count!

Pieris rapae (1)

In the same family (Pieridae) as the cabbage white is the larger, more attractive, and less common cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae). This can be separated from other sulphurs in our area by size – by comparison it is quite large. They’re not known to successfully breed in Maryland, but where they do breed partridge pea is a preferred host plant.

Phoebis sennae (1)
Cloudless sulphur taking nectar from a petunia

I’ll take the next two species, from family Lycaenidae, together because of their superficial similarities. Both are small, blue butterflies with splashes of red. They are both tiny enough to often go unnoticed. Without a detailed look at their markings, both are easily confused for one another and for many similar species throughout their respective ranges. The eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas) is one of the most common butterflies of the Mid-Atlantic. I never realized this until last year, but once I was armed with this information I started seeing them constantly. However, due to their size and abundance other small, blue butterflies can often be mistaken for this diminutive wonder. Among those similar species is the red-banded hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops), which happens to be the only other member of Lycaenidae I have found in my yard.

Calycopis cecrops (1)
a red-banded hairstreak

This next group, collectively called “skippers,” is sometimes separated from butterflies and moths as a third group of Lepidopterans and is classified in family Hesperiidae. I have no opinion on whether skippers are “butterflies” or something similar but different. I am including them with butterflies here for simplicity’s sake and not to take a stand. I do have an opinion on their confusingness: namely, they are. It’s a  challenge to identify skippers to species, with a few exceptions. So, take some of my specific identifications below with a grain of salt, although I have tried to be careful to count only those I have some reason to be confident in.

Epargyreus clarus (7)
Silver-spotted skipper

The silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) is one of the exceptions. It’s a large, common skipper with distinctive markings and as such is incredibly helpful to the curious naturalist. That said, I’ve never found it a particularly compelling species and so I am ready to move on.

Ancyloxypha numitor (1)
least skipper, I think

There are a LOT of small, basically orange, skippers. I believe the above is a least skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor). Even if this individual isn’t, I am quite confident that some of the skippers I have seen are. I don’t necessarily have photos of the individuals which are the most definitively representative of the species.

Atalopedes campestris (3)
Sachem – confirmed by bugguide.net

There are also quite a few small, basically brown skippers. Further confusing things is that some of them vary by sex and some species are sometimes brownish, sometimes orangeish, and there’s a bit of inherent overlap between what is “brown” and what is a sort of dirty orange. Apparently the truly diagnostic features can involve antenna shape and length, body shape, and other similarly hard to spot identifiers. Fortunately for me, the above skipper was identified by the experts at bugguide.net as a sachem (Atalopedes campestris).

Polites peckius (1)
Peck’s skipper

This one was also IDed for my by the bugguide folks (who I can’t plug enough as a naturalist’s best friend) as a Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius). I arrived there myself first but it is always nice to have that expert corroboration. Anyway, see what I mean with all that “orange” and “brown” business?

Poanes zabulon (7)
zabulon skipper

I identified this zabulon skipper (Poanes zabulon) on my own. I was fortunate in that it is a female, because they seem much more distinctive than the males (which fall into that category of small, pale-orange skippers with similar patterns).

I’ll close out the butterflies with probably my most tenuous ID: the fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus). Here I am going by the tiny dark spots on the orange wings, and I am really not sure that’s quite enough. This is a known and fairly common species in Montgomery County that does have those characteristics. I’m not quite knowledgeable enough to rule out all other species for certain.

Hylephila phyleus
fiery skipper

Butterfly visitors not pictured: clouded sulphur (Colias philodice), pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos), and painted lady (Vanessa cardui). I’ve also caught glimpses of fritillaries (probably but not certainly great spangled fritillary) and a probable common buckeye or two.

Moths, as I mentioned above, are a far more diverse group of insects than butterflies. It’s a near certainty that more species of moths than butterflies have visited my butterfly garden. Somewhat paradoxically, that diversity so complicates things that I have only identified seven moth species.

Probably the coolest of these is the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). These things really do look and behave very much like hummingbirds.

Hemaris thysbe (6)
hummingbird clearwing
Epimecis hortaria (1)
tulip-tree beauty

The tulip-tree beauty (Epimeces hortaria), named for its host plant, is a bit drab but oddly beautiful for all that drabness.

Returning to the realm of moths that aren’t classically mothlike, I occasionally come across the ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea). This little guy looks like a “true bug” or plant bug at rest but flies like a wasp.

Atteva aurea (1)
ailanthus webworm moth

My favorite moth find in my garden has to be Hypocala andremona, a species of “underwing” moth most common in Texas. Its host plant is the persimmon, one of which hangs over from our neighbors’ yard. I was clueless about this moth until once again bugguide came to the rescue.

Hypocala andremona (4)
Hypocala andremona

Moth visitors not pictured: Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), common bagworm (Psyche casta), and tent caterpillar (Malacosoma sp.). The Isabella tiger moth is the adult form of the classic “wooly bear” caterpillar.

12 Months of Nature: July

Marsh Wrens and Wildflowers

August is more than a third over, and here I am posting about July… I promise this trip happened on time, though. July’s outing took me to Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Kent County, MD. Eastern Neck is a gem encompassing an island at the mouth of the Chester River and a bit of land on the peninsula just to the north. It’s a bit out of the way but the payoff is worth the journey.

My trusty seasonal guide recommended this destination for both marsh wrens and wildflowers (specifically orchids and mallows). Before I move on, I have to admit that despite best efforts I neither saw nor heard a single marsh wren, nor did I spot any orchids. I had also hoped I might happen across a rail or two, and alas that was not to be. Yet I was not to be skunked! Mallows and other wildflowers were abundant. Even without the mallows this would have been a pleasurable enough trip, proving some cliché or other… maybe “it’s about the journey,” or some similar pithy sentiment.

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seashore mallow – mission accomplished!

In any event, before I hijack this post to speak of the best part of the trip, I should spend some time talking about the targets of my search. I still can’t add marsh wrens to my life list, although I’m not particularly disappointed by this. The time I spent exploring their habitat, occasionally playing their songs and calls from my phone, was quite rewarding. Amid the marshes and woodlands I picked out 35 bird species, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, which had been a bugaboo for a few months. Marsh wrens are fairly secretive and I anticipate plenty of opportunities to cross them off. I’m sitting at 155 species for 2017 with a goal of 162, and so I remain confident I can hit the target without this cute little bird.

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trumpet creeper

The summer wildflowers at Eastern Neck were quite a spectacle. Seashore mallow made this trip technically not a failure and the variety of other flowers helped make it a rousing success in the practical sense. Isolated common mullein plants rose like towers beside the trails, trumpet creeper blanked the sides of buildings, and joe-pye weed mixed with camphorweed and grasses in vast wavy fields. I spotted my personal favorite butterfly garden plant, partridge pea, as well as black-eyed Susan and Queen Anne’s lace here and there. That of course was just a small sampling of the abundant flowers coloring the landscape.

 

img_4762.jpgWhat was a good day for birding and a great day for wildflowers was an unparalleled day for butterflies. Seconds after I stepped from my car a spicebush swallowtail alit on the ground next to me. Soon thereafter a red admiral fluttered past, and on my first short hike common wood nymphs dotted the bushes. This was a trend that would continue without the day until I had encountered at least fifteen species, four of which were new additions to my life list and nine of which I managed to photograph. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that the refuge is home to the best butterfly garden I’ve ever seen (yes, including the one in spectacular, near-and-dear Brookside Gardens). This one was complete with solar panels, freshwater ponds, lillies, and an abundance of butterflies unlike any I’ve seen outside a conservatory. I can’t say anything else that will get across the beauty of the situation, so I will close with some of those photos.

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common wood nymph
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spicebush swallowtail
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a zebra swallowtail and a silver-spotted skipper atop joe-pye weed

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans
April – Early Spring Wildflowers
May – Breeding Horseshoe Crabs
June – Breeding Bird Habitats

 

April for a Maryland Naturalist

April is a busy month for a dedicated naturalist in Maryland (and I suppose probably the rest of the Northern Hemisphere). It’s when one can expect to start seeing early spring wildflowers and trees in bloom. It’s amphibian breeding season, so it is an excellent time to find frogs, toads, and salamanders and observe the various stages in their life cycles. Snakes and turtles rouse themselves and begin their ritual basking. Butterflies can be found on the wing with increasing frequency. It’s peak migration for a lot of migratory birds and begins the return of summer residents. For gardeners it’s time to start thinking about prepping beds, pruning, taking those seedlings outside, sowing, weeding… the list goes on. It rains a lot – and often unexpectedly – but it’s otherwise the perfect time to be outside.

Early Spring Wildflowers & Trees

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Virginia spring beauties
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wood anemone
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golden ragwort
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star chickweed

Amphibians

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salamander, species TBD
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another salamander, species also TBD (this species appear to possess a strange camouflaging property that causes it to appear blurry in photographs.)

Snakes & Turtles

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an eastern black ratsnake just hangin’ out
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A northern red-bellied turtle saying hello.
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a grizzled old snapping turtle who decided the grass was greener (or the water was wetter, I guess?) in the other pond.
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a northern water snake that did NOT like that I was all up in his business. In fairness I didn’t see it until after it fled.
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what I think is a spotted turtle (but may be a painted turtle) perched atop what I am quite confident is a red-eared slider.

Butterflies

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first tiger swallowtail of the season
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pearl crescents mating

Returning Birds

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a Baltimore Oriole
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some purple martins
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a green heron

Gardening

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flats of seedlings under a grow lamp
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a stump planter for some annuals
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some veggies – to be planted tomorrow
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accenting returning perennials with some brightly colored annuals
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I told everyone the rock pile would eventually serve a purpose…

 

 

 

Butterfly Garden Year 3

It’s still winter, but in mid-February it’s already about time to start planting some seeds. I couldn’t be more excited to get started on my butterfly garden’s third year. I’ll be digging new beds, prepping some annuals to add color and beef up the variety, and starting a few new perennials as well. Now seems like as good a time as any to recap the process so far and talk about the ways I hope to improve on the garden for 2017.

2015 saw a modest beginning to the garden. Some of the plants flourished and by summer I had a few lepidopteran visitors, but there wasn’t a ton of activity. I’m sure part of that is due to nature needing some time to adjust to the presence of my little island of native plants, but part of the problem was certainly also due to my rookie mistakes. I started with some common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and tried some butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa) as well but didn’t plant enough of the former and had no success growing the latter. My New England aster and golden alexander (Zizia aurea) did not really thrive, neither making it much past seedling stage. I left the Japanese honeysuckle the previous owner had allowed to grow up the fence, and this attracted hummingbirds to the yard but not butterflies (that I spotted, anyway). Partridge pea, bee balm, and green coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) were really the stars that first year, alongside a couple of nice sunflowers. It was a nice start, and by June it added some significant beauty to the yard, but hindsight tells me it had a long way to go.

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About half of the garden in mid-2015

Last year was a lot more rewarding, with the wildlife seeming to explode into the yard from April all the way through October (as discussed in my first post about the garden). Of course, most notable were the butterflies and moths. I also started to see other insects I hadn’t before in great number and variety: beetles, flies, bees, mantises and more. I found a cool-looking green crab spider hiding in the coneflower and welcomed some small orb-weavers as well. I had a visit from a juvenile gray treefrog, and the number and variety of birds visiting my yard has already begun to increase. So what did I learn or accidentally do differently to see such a dramatic difference?

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Lesson 1: More!

This lesson applied to everything: more space, more plant variety, more of each plant, more maintenance. It was great to establish some native plants in the garden, but one or two per species isn’t really enough to support a solid population of butterflies or attract them in enough numbers to make a difference. That said, the greater the plant diversity the greater the animal diversity will become. The only way to achieve both is to expand the physical space of the garden and that in turn requires more time and energy. The payoff has been well worth it. I guess one last “more” is more non-plant features. I’ve added a home-made puddler and a bench and expanded the rock pile, with more little changes to come.

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Apparently also “More Yellow”

 

Lesson 2: Barriers

Full disclosure: it was mostly the dogs who taught me this lesson. I put up a small fence within our existing fence to stop them from a) shitting in the garden and b) digging up my plants. It’s also helped with the deer. I have bird netting up to keep them out of the back yard, but that doesn’t always stop them. However, since I put up the inner fence I’ve seen no evidence of them breaching that second perimeter. I caught some eating whatever sunflower and morning glory leaves and flowers grew up over the fence, but last year that was the extent of it. In this immediate area, that is a major and hard-won victory.

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Lesson 3: Go Natural, Go Native

This was the general intent all along, but it took some doing to fully implement. For example, there was a massive quantity of Japanese honeysuckle in the back corner when we bought the house. It was pretty, and smelled nice, but it’s an invasive species that’s ridiculously hard to control. So throughout the second year I systematically and with prejudice removed it. It did do a good job attracting hummingbirds to the yard, and after I took it down I hardly saw any, even at my feeder. But it did virtually nothing else except try to choke out my plants, my fence, my neighbor’s trees, the dogs, and the universe at large. In late 2015 we had to have a dead tree taken down, and that gifted me with an abundance of natural wood. I made a large bench (mostly) from it, and used more of it to border our fences and for benches around our fire ring (not inside the garden, but nearby). I used bark and twigs mostly from that tree as natural mulch underneath the bench and it has performed better than I’d hoped. By collecting leaves in the fall I’ve been able to mostly replace purchased straw as a winter cover for the beds.

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Lesson 4: What’s a Weed?

The last thing I’ve picked up is how to tell a seedling weed from a desired plant. Of course, part of this is marking and remembering where you planted but it’s not quite that simple. Some perennials like to move around, and often one will find volunteer annuals coming up. I don’t know that I can really teach this skill – it’s just something I’ve picked up. I suppose it starts by learning the most common weeds in your area: for me ground ivy and garlic mustard are two big ones. The other side of the coin is to recognize the seedlings of the species you want. This is easier than you might think, and this way you can safely discard something you don’t recognize. That said, I’ll leave a lot of native “weeds” like violets, dandelions, and clovers alone where I can. I tend not to pull something until I have a fairly good idea what it is, unless the plants around it are particularly sensitive to the wrong neighbors.

With all of that said, what do I want to do with the garden this year? Well, it starts with lesson 1: more! I already dug some more beds in the late summer and fall of last year, and will begin digging more within the next week or so. Eventually the goal is to have no lawn within the fence I’ve put up, but I don’t think that will be doable in one more year. I’ll fill the space I do clear with more of a few existing plants (milkweeds, joe-pye weed, and purple coneflowers, in particular) and some new plants as well. I’d like to go big for some of the new plants – bushes like viburnums and/or buttonbush. I may also try adding some Dutchman’s pipes, though I hear they come with a foul odor. If I feel ambitious I may build a butterfly house from some of that remaining natural wood. I certainly plan to add a fruit feeder (haven’t settled on bought vs. home-made). I look forward to sharing the results.

Featured Species #2: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is quite common in our region. It’s no less beautiful for its abundance. These beauties can be seen in virtually any meadow, stream bed, or other open area from Spring through early Fall. They are one of the more photogenic butterflies because of their size, coloration, and relatively relaxed movement. Along with the cabbage white, they are some of the most frequent visitors to my butterfly garden.

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An eastern tiger swallowtail visiting a butterfly bush in Wheaton Regional Park

I recall referring to them decades ago as “yellow swallowtails” as distinguished from “black swallowtails.” I’m not sure if this was a regional colloquialism or my own failing; either way it’s confusing. The eastern tiger swallowtail has both a yellow and a black morph, and several local species of swallowtail are predominantly black. Black swallowtail is actually the common name of one of them. In parts of the Mid-Atlantic, it overlaps with the similar Appalachian tiger swallowtail (Papilio appalachiensis) and the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). The latter is fairly easy to identify by multiple characteristics, including its giantry. The former is a bit tricky and requires close observation of the trailing edge of the ventral forewing. The row of yellow dots found on the eastern is more of a continuous bar on the Appalachian.

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A pair of eastern tiger swallowtails feeding on buttonbush
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And another, feeding on bee balm

Host plants include a variety of trees and bushes: tulip poplar, common lilac, black cherry, and species of ash and willow, for example. Many of these are common in the mid-Atlantic both as naturally occurring plants and as native ornamentals.

The adults will feed on just about any plant for nectar. I frequently find them on my butterfly bushes (my one non-native concession inside the butterfly garden) and they seem to love buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) as well. I’ve also seen them feeding from coneflowers, bee balm, thistles, Queen Anne’s Lace, and more. They seem willing to give a chance to any flower large enough to support them while they feed.

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This one is “puddling” on the muddy bank of a creek.

Eastern tiger swallowtail links

 

 

 

 

Intro to Butterfly Gardens

Planting a butterfly garden was one of my first landscaping priorities after moving into my home in 2014. On one level, this was motivated by the idea that butterflies are pretty, and it would therefore be cool to see a lot of them often. This is true, and a perfectly fine motivation, but “butterfly garden” is a bit of a misnomer, at least in terms of the endgame. Butterflies (and the other pollinators attracted to the same plants) are hugely important to the ecosystem. Butterfly larvae are a major food source for birds and small mammals – some birds feed almost exclusively on caterpillars of a single species. Increasing local butterfly diversity and population will thus increase the local overall biodiversity and biomass, and sometimes dramatically. It doesn’t have quite the same ring, but I like to think of my garden as a “biodiversity garden.” Some call them “native plant gardens,” or a similar variant. whatever the term, the idea is to support the ecosystem by planting plants that have naturally evolved with other life in the area over millennia.

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About half of my butterfly garden as of this July.

Designing a butterfly garden, as any garden, begins with deciding what you wish to plant. The goal here is to include mostly native plants that will attract butterflies (and moths and skippers – I probably should be saying “lepidopterans”). Butterflies rely on plants for food during both active stages of their life cycle: the adults feed on nectar and the caterpillars feed on leaves. Like humans, the young of butterflies can range from not picky (generalist) to extremely picky (specialist) eaters. The monarch is the classic example of a specialist – its caterpillars will only feed on milkweeds (Asclepias species). Plants a given species will eat are called “host plants” for the species, and females will only lay their eggs on suitable plants. Adults are typically much more cosmopolitan in their tastes, but feed on nectar. A successful butterfly garden will feature nectar plants to attract the butterflies and host plants to keep them there and propagate them. Of course, many plants serve both purposes, making them ideal choices.

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Two monarch caterpillars on a common milkweed leaf.

There seems to be some debate regarding the ideal ratio of host plants to nectar plants. My beginner’s take is that it probably doesn’t matter much as long as both are present in significant quantities. However, the more limited the space the more selective one must be. I have hedged my bets a bit by planting as many plants as possible which fill both roles and building around those. Additionally, it’s helpful to consider what is planted elsewhere in your yard and immediate neighborhood. Butterflies after all will not recognize the boundaries of your garden or your property, so plants nearby can also contribute. Many trees and shrubs which may not be practical fits in your butterfly garden space are host plants for a diverse mixture of butterflies and moths. Most common oaks, for example, host hundreds of caterpillar species. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a host plant for the appropriately named spicebush swallowtail. Viburnums host many species and produce lovely white flower clusters.

Aside from plants, a number of other things can encourage butterflies to visit your garden or extend their stay. Many butterflies will feed on overripe fruit, so a suspended tray of fruit can be a nice feature. Some feeders include a sponge soaked in sugary water as well. Butterflies also engage in a behavior called “puddling” to soak up nutrients from wet soil, and providing them with a space to do so can entice them to hang around longer. You can purchase a puddler or make your own, or simply rely on mud puddles. Butterfly houses can also be bought or built as encouragement for your visitors to hang around. Rock piles and/or log piles can serve a similar function (providing shelter from weather and predators). It’s also a good idea to add a place for humans to sit and observe the wildlife; I built a bench from (mostly) natural wood for this purpose.

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Caterpillars of the milkweed tussock moth

Much of the source material I turned to when planning my butterfly garden focused pretty extensively on monarchs and milkweeds. It led me to wonder why monarchs in particular get so much of the butterfly press, but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. Monarchs are beautiful, large butterflies that are well known. Because of the viceroy, they’re part of the definitive example of Batesian mimicry. They are also in trouble because milkweeds are in trouble. As I’ve mentioned, their larvae will only eat milkweeds. As one might infer from the name, these plants have long been regarded as, well, weeds. People have been systematically removing milkweeds from a lot of areas, unwittingly endangering monarchs in the process. It isn’t just a problem for monarchs, though. The milkweed tussock moth, small and large milkweed bugs, red milkweed beetle, and other insects all rely heavily on Asclepias. The relationship between milkweeds and monarchs is a very illustrative example, but far from the only example. Adult butterflies will feed on the nectar of non-native flowers, but virtually no non-native plant can host a native caterpillar.

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Nymphs of the large milkweed bug clustering on a seed pod
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Red milkweed beetles on – you guessed it – milkweed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This returns me to the butterfly garden’s true purpose: to contribute ecological functions to the local biosphere. The native host and nectar plants have evolved relationships with many local forms of life on a grand time scale. Restoring these plants to an area also restores those relationships. Alien plants can stand in and provide some of the ecological functions, but not nearly all. I won’t advocate for the complete removal of all non-natives from gardens and other home landscaping, and I make concessions in this area myself. Increasing the number and variety of native plants in one’s yard, though, is a noble goal and a butterfly garden provides an excellent framework for doing so.

 

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A pair of eastern tailed-blues on a New England aster

Further Reading:

North American Butterfly Association

Our Habitat Garden

The Butterfly Website

Bringing Nature Home