How many butterflies did you see in the past year? Not very many, right? You can attract a surprising variety of butterflies to your landscape with a butterfly garden.
Back in my hitchhiking days (the 1970s), I saw millions of butterflies along the Interstate. They would litter the side of the freeway and create colorful clouds in the air. In my own insect-friendly yard, however, I saw no more than a dozen butterflies last year. What happened?
Threats to butterflies
Butterflies have been around for 56 million years, but times are hard. Habitat loss, pollution, pesticide use, invasive species, rising temperatures, and interruptions in their food web all make life difficult for butterflies. Butterflies are particularly hard hit because many of them rely on a single plant species as hosts for their eggs and offspring.
Here, in San Jose, California, we have 144 species of native butterflies. Sadly, we also have the highest density of endangered butterfly species in the nation. Some of the most threatened California butterflies and their host plants include:
Imagine what would happen if everyone added just one butterfly-friendly plant to their landscape.
Most of the plants used in butterfly gardens are insectary plants. Insectary plants are those with the color, shape, and height that appeal to butterflies and other beneficial insects. Common insectary plants include the following:
Members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) also make good insectary plants. The problem with these generic lists is that many of these plants are non-natives, which can cause problems. Even though these plants provide nectar and pollen for adults, they can actually devastate local butterfly populations because the adults see food for themselves and lay eggs nearby. When those eggs hatch, the larvae have nothing to eat. Put simply, these might or might not be the plants your butterflies need. Or they might be perfect.
I cannot tell you which plants, specifically, to include in your butterfly garden. This is because each region has its own indigenous butterfly population. To find out what is native to your area, conduct an online search for “butterflies native to [your town]. The results may surprise you.
Once you have a list of indigenous butterflies, you can track down their host plants. Host plants are those that will provide the pollen and nectar needed by adult butterflies and the leaves needed for egg-laying and caterpillar feeding. Armed with this information, you are ready to design your butterfly garden.
Planning your butterfly garden
Your butterfly garden doesn’t need to be big or formal to be effective. You can scatter host plants throughout your landscape, if you like. Or you can create an elegant parterre. It’s up to you. Butterflies do use sunlight to warm themselves, so south-facing areas are preferable, as are areas protected from wind. A water feature, such as a bird bath or fountain, can help your butterflies stay hydrated. Rocks, for basking, are always appreciated.
There is also nothing saying you have to install plants specifically for endangered species, although it would be nice. The important thing is to get the correct plants in the ground and helping them to thrive.
Adding a butterfly garden to your landscape does not take a lot of effort on your part, but it can make a huge difference for the butterflies. It will also increase the biodiversity in your garden, making it a healthier environment. Other beneficial insects will also be attracted to these plants. These beneficial insects might be pollinators, predators, or they may parasitize insect pests.
And the flowering plants look lovely.
Did you know that some adult butterflies also eat carrion, rotting fruit, and tree sap, while the larvae of some butterfly species eat ants and other insect pests? I didn’t either.
Now we know.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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