Gardening for Butterflies

Gardening for butterflies is now one of the major pursuits in my gardens. A butterfly is one of those random gifts that brings pleasure at its presence.

A butterfly needs nectar plants to feed on. These plants are often among the showiest in the gardens. They have to be to attract insects for pollination of seeds. The best feeding flowers are usually flat and make good landing places for the adults to perch on and drink.
To keep butterflies around longer there are several other things you can add to your garden. The most important are larval food sources. These are plants that the adult females will lay their eggs on and once hatched, the caterpillars will eat until time to form a chrysalis to wait for the next generation. It may seem like you would be inviting disaster by inviting plant eating creatures into your flower garden. Fortunately though caterpillars are very picky about what they eat. These larval food sources are usually green leafy plants. Parsley and dill are a couple of good examples. Different butterflies have different preferences for plant food so a wide variety of plants is good. The Gulf Fritillary caterpillar feeds on Passion Vine and nothing else that I know of in my garden. Once the Gulf Fritillary has found your passion vine, you should have them in your yard from mid summer to fall. The passion vine is a vigorous, lush, climbing vine that makes a nice addition on an arbor. A large population of caterpillars can eat it until the stems are totally bare on a young plant. It springs back nicely though and an older plant can support many caterpillars.
Butterflies are cold-blooded and need warm places to sit and bask in the sun. Flat, dark rocks are a welcome site for this. Bare earth and grassy areas also work. Male butterflies can benefit from the minerals in mud seeps. A slow dripper line set to drip over a rock and then to bare soil can provide this as well as a watering site. For the dedicated butterfly gardener, rotting fruit or moist, rotting animal dung placed around the garden may attract different species.
There are several good web sites and field guides that list butterflies and their requirements for preferred food sources.
It is very important to eliminate pesticides or at least use on a very specific target in the yard. Many pesticides will kill either the adults or the caterpillars as they are eating. Most plants are very resilient to insect damage. The insect population is often short lived and moves on anyway or it is so pervasive and random that spraying does little good on the intruders. Some plants invite certain pests and the plant may need to be traded out for a less appealing plant variety. A butterfly and many other beneficial insects know no boundaries in your yard and are likely to visit the plant or grass that has been sprayed. Good gardening practices will produce healthy plants that can stand a lot of abuse from insects and a healthy ecosystem in your yard will provide natural predators for many pests.