GREEN THUMBS UP: Create a garden for butterflies
Throughout my landscape, multicolored butterflies float from flower to flower, adding a magical touch to my summer gardens. Despite the ongoing drought, continued warmth and sunshine have produced a profusion of “fluttering flowers”, as Robert Frost described these ethereal creatures. As the summer progresses, a broad diversity of butterflies can be enticed to visit our gardens if their basic needs of food, water, shelter, and reproductive areas are provided.
Last summer, butterfly sightings were few and far between, due to the previous challenging winter, but the recent resurgence of multiple species is offering hope that their populations will soon recover. Perhaps the most encouraging sign was the appearance of two Monarch butterflies in my yard this month, several weeks apart. I had only seen a total of two in my gardens in the past three years.
A diversity of butterflies can be enticed to visit our gardens if their basic needs of food, water, shelter and reproductive areas are provided. An ideal habitat for butterflies should include a multi-layered landscape with a variety of nectar-rich flowers in sunny open spaces bordered by small trees and shrubs, hedgerows, or thickets that will offer shelter from bad weather and predators as well as nooks for over-wintering butterflies in the caterpillar, pupal, or adult stages.
A water source is also essential and may be provided by water gardens, birdbaths, or practically any shallow container that holds water. You can create your own butterfly bath by sinking a plastic dish or liner into the ground. Fill it with crushed stone or sand and add water. Place a few small stones or sticks on the surface to serve as landing platforms.
A progression and variety of nectar-rich flowers will ensure many winged visitors. Mass plantings of colorful flowers, particularly those tinted pink and lavender, are irresistible to butterflies passing overhead. Daisy-like flowers invite numerous butterfly species, their petals providing platforms from which to sip the nectar found in the myriad of tiny flowers forming the central disk. Cosmos, Shasta daisy, coreopsis, aster, stokesia, zinnia, scabiosa, black-eyed Susan, and echinacea are only a few of the plants that can be grown. Flowers that grow in clusters at various heights are equally desirable: azaleas, lilacs, lantana, numerous herbs, Joe-Pye-weed, beebalm, phlox, sedum, pentas, and liatris invite a diversity of butterfly species.
As one would expect, plants bearing the common names of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and butterfly bush (Buddleia) are deserving of these designations as butterfly magnets. The brilliant orange butterfly weed performs best in well-drained soils while its relative, swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) adapts to nearly all soils, with appealing umbels in pink or white. Members of the milkweed family have the added benefit of serving as larval food sources for Monarch butterflies.
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