by Connie Oswald Stofko
If you want to attract adult butterflies to your garden, you can choose plants that provide nectar.
But if you really want to help butterflies, provide plants that they need in other parts of their life cycle, too.
That’s the suggestion of Douglas W. Tallamy, famed author of Bringing Nature Home, who spoke in Western New York in March.
Butterflies don’t lay their eggs on any old plant, Tallamy said in Bringing Nature Home. They lay their eggs only on the plants that their larvae (caterpillars) are adapted to.
One excellent group of plants that no butterfly garden should do without are the milkweeds, Tallamy said. Monarchs will lay their eggs only on milkweed. While the monarch is the best-known milkweed specialist, at least 11 other moths and butterflies reproduce on milkweed, too.
Don’t be put off by the word “weed” in the plants’ name; they look great in a garden. When planted together, they create a continuous display of wonderful pink or orange flowers that are highly attractive to several species of butterflies from June into September. Tallamy mentioned butterfly weed, also called butterfly flower or Asclepias tuberosa, common milkweed or Asclepias syriaca, and swamp milkweed or Asclepias incarnata.
When you bring these native plants into your garden, you not only attract adult butterflies, you help them to make brand new butterflies.
I saw this demonstrated in the garden of Sandy Baty of Tonawanda. She and her husband Ron shared their landscape on the daytime and nighttime Ken-Ton Garden Tour last year, and we’ll show you more photos of their stunning yard in a future post. It’s a great example of a landscape that uses native plants and looks attractive, too.
While Baty has many flowers to provide nectar, she also has five varieties of milkweed to support eggs and caterpillars.
In addition, Baty has black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) and several varieties of coneflower, which Tallamy notes also wear two hats in the butterfly garden. They support the reproduction of dozens of species of butterflies and moths.
While Baty has had other kinds of butterflies in her garden, last year she concentrated on the monarchs. She took eggs and caterpillars off the plants placed them in a zipped box made of netting to protect them from predators. She watched them make their chrysalises. And she watched a total of about 50 adult monarchs emerge and fly off.
“I didn’t realize how much fun it would be,” Baty said. “I wish I had done this years ago.”
Not only is it fun to see caterpillars turn into butterflies, it’s helpful to the environment to provide the host plants that butterflies need to lay eggs and support caterpillars.
“Remember, every caterpillar you make in your butterfly garden either becomes a new moth or butterfly, or a source of food for a hungry bird,” Tallamy said.
Tallamy emphasizes the need for gardeners to use native plants, which our local animals, including butterflies, depend on.
A butterfly bush attracts adult butterflies, but it offers nothing for caterpillars. If you want a tall display of billowy flowers, Tallamy suggests instead using common Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium dubium) or hollowstem Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum).These are every bit as attractive to butterflies looking for nectar and they host more than three dozen species of butterflies and moths.