Attracting Butterflies

By Edie Parnum

A sunny suburban garden is a perfect place to attract and enjoy butterflies. And even those with just a casual interest in nature enjoy these colorful creatures fluttering about and landing to nectar on beautiful flowers. Large, stunning butterflies like the Monarch, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Spicebush Swallowtail, Great-spangled Fritillary, American Lady, and Mourning Cloak are easy to attract and observe. With a pair of close-focussing binoculars you can appreciate the detail of their markings and likely come to appreciate the smaller butterflies like the azures, hairstreaks, duskywings, and even the hard-to-identify little brown skippers.

Butterflies look for nectar in gardens with plenty of flowers. Being dainty creatures, they like sunny places that are sheltered from the wind. Native wildflowers like Asters (Aster spp.), Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), Butterfly Weed (Aesclepius tuberosa), Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Gayfeather (Liaitris spp.), Goldenrods (Solidago spp.), Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum), Mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum), Mountain Mints (Pycnanthemum spp.), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Swamp Milkweed (Aesclepius incarnata), Tickseeds (Coreopsis spp.), and Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) will attract a variety of butterflies. For optimal visibility by passing butterflies, plant three or more of each species and have something in bloom throughout the growing season. Many of these plants will provide nectar for hummingbirds as well.

During the course of their short lives as adults, butterflies don’t travel far, so you will want to grow their host plants in your yard. Each butterfly species is rather specific about the plants on which they will lay their eggs, because the caterpillars, when they hatch, prefer to eat the foliage of particular plants. For example the Monarch will deposit its eggs only on Butterfly Weed and other members of the milkweed family (Asclepias spp.). Some other host plants to consider for your garden are Asters (Aster spp.) for Pearly Everlasting; Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) for Question Mark, Eastern Comma, and Hackberry Emperor; Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) for Spring Azure; Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) or Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) for Spicebush Swallowtail; Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) for Eastern Tiger Swallowtail; and Violets (Viola spp.) for Great-spangled Fritillary. Don’t panic if you see some foliage being eaten by butterfly caterpillars. The damage to the plant will be minimal, and, of course, pesticides would kill both the butterfly larvae as well as the adults.

There are other things you can do to attract butterflies. Since some species enjoy rotting fruit, you can fill a dish with overripe bananas, peaches, watermelon, or other fruit to provide nourishment for Red Admiral, Red-spotted Purple, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, and others. Male butterflies like damp spots where they seek mineral deposits. You can create a place for puddling by burying a container filled with sand and soil and adding water regularly. And don’t clean up all your leaves in the fall because butterflies such as Question Mark, Eastern Comma, and Mourning Cloak overwinter in the leaf litter.

By attracting butterflies to your yard, you and your companions are certain to enjoy watching and learning about them. In addition you will take pleasure in knowing you have a healthy backyard habitat for these and other associated insects that are important in the web of life.