Gardening & Certification
A Brief Introduction to Butterfly Gardening
by Bob Cairns
We are interested in attracting butterflies to our yard for two reasons, to
admire their beauty as they flutter around, and to entice them to lay eggs
on our plants so that more butterflies are created.
You can certainly attract some butterflies to your yard if you have a nice
collection of flowers, but, if you really want to create a butterfly haven,
you must lure the butterflies to lay their eggs on your plants.
Each type of female adult butterfly is attracted to a specific type of plant
on which to lay her eggs. If you want to attract that species of
butterfly to your yard you must have that type of plant.
For example, one of the most common butterflies in Michigan is the Monarch,
a beautiful black and orange creature that will only lay her eggs on plants
of the milkweed family.
Milkweed is a native Michigan plant that can be found everywhere.
However, milkweed plants for your garden should be purchased from a
reputable nursery that we can recommend, or obtained from a knowledgeable
person, such as one of the butterfly people in our club. They should not be
dug up in a roadside ditch.
Follow good design practice and plan an odd-numbered clump of milkweed
plants in your yard - 3, 5 or 7. The bigger the clump the better
because Monarchs are near-sighted creatures who will find it easier to spot
large splotches of milkweed color. The Monarchs will find your milkweed
plants and lay their eggs on them.
The eggs will hatch into caterpillars. Each caterpillar will grow in
size until it is ready to transform into a butterfly. It builds a
special enclosure, called a chrysalis, in which the transformation takes
place. The chrysalis looks like a cocoon. A moth makes a cocoon,
a butterfly makes a chrysalis. After a few days a Monarch butterfly
will emerge from the chrysalis.
This all occurs if the eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalises are not consumed
by the many predators that like to eat them for lunch. It is estimated
that less than 1% of teh eggs make it to butterflies - that is fewer than
one out of 100 eggs survive.
It is important to understand that starting right after their birth the
Monarch caterpillars will eat the milkweed plant on which they were born.
Milkweed is called the "host plant for the Monarch butterfly." It is
the only plant on which Monarch eggs are laid and the only plant which is
consumed by Monarch caterpillars as they grow.
Once the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis it will fly around looking for
flowers in bloom from which it will take nectar as food. There are
many types of common flowers from which butterflies will take food.
These are called "nectar plants." A good butterfly garden contains
both host and nectar plants.
That summarizes the basic elements of butterfly gardening. Of course,
there are lots more things to learn if you really want to get serious about
attracting butterflies to your yard.
For example, you can find out which plants are host plants for other species
of butterflies and plant those in your yard. Brenda Dziedzic, our
fearless leader, has a handout that lists most common butterfly species and
the host plants they use.
One of the additional things you can do, and this is where the fun really
begins, is increase the eggs' chances of survival by collecting them from
your plants and raising them in simple containers in your house.
Most of the additional information about attracting and raising butterflies
can be found in a book such as "The Family Butterfly Book," which is
available at many bookstores or on-line.