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" The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed." Gen.2:8
For those of us who love to plant and see things grow, adding the color and movement of butterflies only adds to our enjoyment. In fact, for me, a garden is not truly complete without butterflies and the other birds and animals that make it a true ecosystem. I try to plan my gardens with their requirements in mind as much as my desires for color and form.
As promised in my last post on the threats to the monarch migration, I 'll give some suggestions here for practical approaches to the problem of declining butterfly populations. Not only are Monarchs in danger, but loss of habitat is causing declines in many other species. Sprawling suburbs, paved over shopping centers, and ever widening highways, are only part of the problem of habitat loss. However, there is one hopeful note we can find in this list. We can begin to make a dent in the sterile, manicured landscapes of our own yards by planting the things butterflies, and other pollinators need to thrive.
When I speak about gardening for butterflies, I often find myself with a less than sympathetic audience, and have to answer questions like these: "If I attract butterflies,won't I also attract other insects? "or" I just don't like an untidy garden and so many of these plants are just weeds". My favorite, though, is "well I already have a butterfly garden. The butterflies just love my butterfly bush."
O.K., so where should I start? First, if you have decided that you want to encourage a continuing population of butterflies ( and don 't forget our beautiful native moths! ) you'll have to plant more than just the flowers that produce nectar for the adult butterflies. The young (larvae, or caterpillars) must have leaves, and not just any leaves. Many are "food specialists" refusing any plant but their own host plant. That means you'll have to learn which plants will provide a suitable nursery for the butterflies you want to attract. You also need to learn what conditions those plants require, and be realistic in deciding whether you can provide those conditions. Fortunately, the best plants for supporting native wildlife are generally native plants, already well acclimated to the region where they occur, and therefore not difficult to grow.
I did promise a "practical" guide, so I'm going to make a few suggestions for your butterfly garden that are hardy, attractive, and able to grow in a wide variety of regions and soils. Notice that most like sun, and that butterflies also like sun. So find a nice, sunny spot for your garden. If you already have a garden in such an area, try tucking a few of these in here and there. The overall effect will be casual and colorful. Try any, or all, of these: Monarda (bee balm), Echinacea (coneflower), Black-eyed Susan, Snapdragon, Asclepias (milkweeds, especially the bright orange "butterfly weed"), buttonbush, Joe Pye Weed,and violets. Then, for a good nectar source, though not a larval host plant, consider adding zinnias, available in a variety of colors and heights. If you have a fence or border to plant, you might like to put in a spicebush (Lindera benzoin), or a few blueberry bushes. If you have a streamside area, be sure to plant a willow species, but not the "weeping", or the "white", willows, as these are not native species and so will host few, or no, native lepidoptera. In fact, try to use native, rather than alien, or exotic, plants whenever possible; since native insect herbivores seldom accept the aliens as food. For example, although we know the attraction the Buddlea, or "butterfly bush" has for all nectar feeders as adults, there is not a single North American butterfly or moth caterpillar that eats its foliage. Two more comments about Buddlea might be helpful. One is that the lavender variety seems to attract the most butterflies. The other is the advice to deadhead, or prune back, the bush at the end of the first blooming period to encourage a late bloom for late arriving Monarchs. In fact, consider planning your garden for some nectar rich flowers from Spring through Fall.
If you still need encouragement to try butterfly gardening, take a look at some of the photos on my "butterfly gardening" page and imagine these scenes in you own yard. Also, if you really want to learn more about gardening to support wildlife, I recommend "Bringing Nature Home", by Douglas W. Tallamy. This book gives more than the usual list by scientific name of all the plants known to be food for caterpillars of a given group. The author breaks down the list by U.S. region and type of plant, i.e., tree, bush, perennial, ground cover, etc. The breakdown eliminates a lot of searching through available sources. If you want to order this book, click on the link below.
Finally, let us all pause for a moment to realize what a gift God has given us in the beautiful things of nature, and consider how much our own action, or inaction, has to do with whether we, and our grandchildren, will be able to enjoy this gift in the future. Jesus taught a valuable lesson on being a good steward, summarizing with these words:
"--For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more." Luke 12:48