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Some people have other fantasies, but I dream of a yard filled with every species of butterfly native to this part of Virginia, and possibly a few strays from the areas farther south and nearer the coast! Of course, that means I have to plant to attract them. With only a half acre plot of ground, half of which is heavily shaded by Norway maples and other non-native plantings, the realistic part of my mind tells me this isn't likely to happen, at least not in my lifetime. Even so, I keep on dreaming and trying new plants, which often seem to attract the deer and rabits before they ever grow large enough to attract butterflies.
Now that our first (and probably the last) significant snowfall of this season has melted into the ground my thoughts are rapidly turning to plans for my garden. Memories of past years remind me that plans don't always mature into what my imagination had painted! My potential garden area is small, and has to provide food for human consumption as well as for butterflies, so planning is important. I have learned, over the years, that it is possible to combine the two purposes if one is willing to share with a few caterpillars., and also place smaller plantings of suitable butterfly attractants in other parts of the yard--even in pots on the porch.
That brings me to the main task in creating a butterfly garden. Too many people think that a butterfly bush or two is a butterfly garden. For butterflies to increase in any area, though, the needs of the larvae of these butterflies must be met. That means that the specific plants preferred by the kinds of butterflies you want to attract must be available. The plants will draw the butterflies, which will lay their eggs on those leaves. Caterpillars can be quite picky about their food. In fact, many will only eat one or two kinds of leaves. I have had the sad experience of watching spicebush swallowtail caterpillars starve to death on a plant that I had bought as spicebush, but which was only a somewhat similar, but unrelated, plant to the Lindera benzoin which they required. It should not be any surprise that most of the plants used by butterflies are plants native to the same areas to which the butterflies are also native. The female butterfly just tastes the exotic plant she landed on and says "you're not from around here, are you?" Then she flies off in search of better baby food. Incidentally, she tastes the leaf with her feet! Isn't that cool? I never tire of learning more about the amazing things God has designed into the tiniest parts of His creation, and love to share the information with others.
So, now, if you have really decided to share your garden with a few hungry caterpillars in exchange for the pleasure of seeing the winged beauties they will become, I do have a few practical suggestions. A number of the required ("host") plants can grow quite large, but can be kept more compact by regular pruning. As examples, I suggest wild cherry, either black or choke cherry, and the spicebush previously named. These should attract tiger and spicebush swallowtails. Be sure to tuck some parsley in between the flowers for the black swallowtails. Plant enough varieties of echinacea to feed the silvery checkerspots and still leave some folliage for your flower arrangements. Passion vine, also called maypop, is loved by variegated fritillaries, but needs something to climb on. A patch of violets will feed several varieties of fritillary, and don't forget to plant milkweeds for the monarchs. Asclepias tuberosa and Asclepias incarnata have gorgeous blossoms which provide nectar for many butterfly species and are the most readily available milkweed varieties. Although I do have a few buddleia ("butterfly bush") these are not native plants and only attract the adult butterflies. A native plant, buttonbush, has attractive, and sweet scented, blossoms that are very attractive to butterflies and also serve as food for over a dozen species of butterfly and moth caterpillars. Now, if I have whetted your appetite a bit, and you want to learn more, I recommend two books as excellent sources. These are: "Bringing Nature Home", by Douglas W. Tallamy, and "Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants" by Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
One last bit of advice should be obvious, but here it is, anyway, You can't use insecticides in the butterfly garden! After all, butterflies are insects. In fact, when you buy plants for your garden, be sure they haven't been sprayed. Yes, you will probably see some chewed leaves, but what a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing "flying flowers" in your garden. You may even find yourself beginning to find caterpillars attractive in their own way. After all, they are simply a vital part of God's perfect, and perfectly beautiful, plan for the world He created.