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By Lee Ann Kinzer and Maria Parisi, Habitat Stewards

Monarch Viceroy, Mourning Cloak, Painted Lady, Dreamy Dusky Wing — surely no other creatures are so fancifully named, nor as beloved, as butterflies. Some 700 butterfly species are found in North America (about the same as the number of bird species). With careful planning of home gardens and public spaces, we can observe them close up and help assure them the environments they require. If the idea tempts you to want your own butterfly garden, begin with the hints that follow, then consult the suggested web sites for details and you’ll be ready to dig!

Research — Begin by researching the butterflies that live in or migrate through your area. Selecting plants for butterflies that are not local to your home may result in a beautiful garden, but not a butterfly habitat.

Pesticides — The purpose of pesticides and herbicides is to control unwanted insects and plants. They may affect butterflies and caterpillars exactly as they affect the harmful insects at which they are aimed. Minimizing use of these products is important for a butterfly garden.

Plant selection — Butterflies are sensitive environmental indicators. Their recent decline in numbers is attributable to habitat loss and alteration. Careful selection and use of plants in gardens, especially in urban areas, can mitigate some of the loss.

When choosing plants, consider the butterfly’s four distinct life stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and winged adult. Many caterpillars are highly selective in their food choices, and adult females are adept at finding the right (“host”) plants on which to lay their eggs and for the caterpillars to feast upon. Some butterflies overwinter in our areaand others migrate, so food is needed from early spring through late fall.

Habitat gardeners tend to prefer native plants for butterfly gardens, partly because these have evolved in concert with butterflies to provide their “natural” food and partly because they are often more easily established and maintained. Most butterflies are attracted to a wide range of “nectar plants” in their search for food. They do, in fact, have flower color and type preferences. In general butterfly preference for color is first purple and pink, then yellow, finally white. Flat, daisy-like flowers usually offer a better resting place for nectaring.

Garden planning — Plant in masses. Butterflies can more easily spot large areas of color. Plan for a variety of plant heights, from low to tree height. Don’t rush to tidy up your garden—you may remove pupae or hibernating adults that are hidden among the dead leaves and twigs.

Sun and shelter — Flowering plants require sun, and so do butterflies. They can fly well only when their bodies have been warmed to temperatures of 85 to 100 degrees F. Flat stones and plants with horizontal, outreaching branches or flowers provide needed basking spots. Eggs and caterpillars may develop up to 50 percent faster in warm sites, actually increasing the number of butterflies. Shelter from cooling wind is also important.

Additional elements — Mud puddles or wet sandy areas may attract groups of butterflies (mostly males) to drink or to engage in “puddling.” Some butterflies are attracted to carrion, animal scat or urine, or rotting fruit. Any of these could be hidden at the margins of planted areas; fruit, however, may attract raccoons.

Be patient — It may take more than one season for butterflies to find you.

For more detailed information on butterfly attracting plants, visit Green Spring Gardens Park on the web for the Plant Information Sheet titled Using Native Plants to Attract Butterflies and Moths. Also check the Washington Area Butterfly Club’s website for more resources, including dates and places of native plant sales, events such as butterfly gardening classes and a list of local public butterfly gardens.

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