Create a Butterfly Garden with Native Plants
May in Chicagoland is about the time we start to seeing butterflies fluttering around the garden. Sometimes referred to as “flying flowers”, these graceful and mysterious creatures are not only delightful when they arrive in our yards, they’re important pollinators and food resources for birds and mammals. Some common local butterflies include the red admiral, painted lady, black swallowtail, eastern tiger swallowtail and the iconic monarch.
According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, there are more than 150 species of butterflies (of the insect order Lepidoptera) found in Illinois.
To attract more butterflies, planting a garden with mostly native plants is a great start. However, water, sun, shelter and host plants for their caterpillars and nectar plants for adults are also important. A warm, sunny spot near a fence, wall or hedge with a diversity of native plants and a “puddling stone” or mud puddle makes a perfect butterfly haven. Because they are cold-blooded, butterflies need sunny spots out of the wind to warm up each morning.
When we see a butterfly perched with its wings open in the sun, it’s warming up to fly. Add dark-colored rocks to a sunny sheltered area to create warming zones. Butterflies also like to drink from shallow puddles. Providing rocks with shallow “bowls” that hold water, filling shallow dishes with moistened sand or leaving open spots to form mud puddles can supply butterflies with mineral-rich water.
Adult butterflies lay their eggs on host plants. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars eat the host plants as they mature. Many caterpillars only eat certain host plants; for example, monarchs eat only milkweeds (Asclepias spp.). Kylee Baumle, author of The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, notes, “The natural habitat that milkweed plants once populated has declined significantly in the last 20 years. With milkweed being the only plant that monarchs utilize for egg-laying [(because it’s the only thing a monarch caterpillar eats]), it only makes sense for us to plant more of this native wildflower.”
Baumle notes some native milkweeds to plant are common milkweed (A. syriaca), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), whorled milkweed (A. verticillata) and butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), named the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association (PerennialPlant.org).
Similarly, black swallowtails stick to the carrot family for host plants (including parsley and dill in the herb garden) and red admirals choose nettles, including stinging nettle. Some butterfly host plants include trees or shrubs, such as the spicebush for the spicebush swallowtail.
Nectar plants provide the food adult butterflies need to live, breed and migrate. The trick is to plant groups, or drifts, of the same type of flower, and then to have multiple drifts of different flowers for continuous blooms. Adding nectar-rich (but non-native) annuals such as zinnia, Mexican sunflower (Tithonia spp.), and cosmos complements the “buffet”. Be sure to include late-season bloomers such as goldenrods and asters, which help butterflies fuel up for fall migration or overwintering, and always avoid using insecticides or herbicides.
Michelle Byrne Walsh is a freelance writer and the editor of four State-by-State Gardening, Inc., publications. She is president of the University of Illinois Extension McHenry County Master Gardeners and a member of GWA: The Association for Garden Communicators. Contact her at MByrneW@comcast.net.