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Butterfly Feeders

Gardening For Butterflies
by Rose Franklin              February 12, 2001

  Butterflies are among the most beautiful insects on earth---and one of the few insects we desire to see in our flower gardens! Their colorful wings add a decorator's touch to our gardens as they flutter from flower to flower in search for nectar. Most gardeners wish they could attract more butterflies to their property.

Attracting butterflies to your garden involves essentially two things: (1) planting the right flowers in the right place, and (2) refraining from the use of chemical insecticides. To attract more species of butterflies, you could add to the butterfly garden a mud puddle, a bowl of rotting fruit, and/or mammal manure. With or without these additional lures, however, many butterflies will be enticed to visit a garden that provides desirable nectar sources which are not poisoned with insecticides.  The location of your property plays a role in determining how many butterfly species might visit your garden for flower nectar. Some species of butterflies prefer open areas while others elect to reside near wet meadows or deciduous forests. Thus, a person living in an open rural area, near a stream or swamp, and adjacent to a deciduous forest will likely attract more species of butterflies to his or her garden than will a city dweller.

The best position for a butterfly garden is in full sun. Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that can only fly well when their body temperatures are above 70 degrees F. You have probably noticed that butterfly activity is limited on cool, cloudy days and increased on warm, sunny days. Without warmth, butterflies are physically unable to fly.  It is advisable to plant the butterfly garden in a location that is sheltered from the wind. Wind currents make flight maneuver difficult for butterflies and require the expenditure of extra energy as they try to feed, mate, and lay eggs. A wind break can be provided by simply planting evergreens to protect the garden from prevailing winds.

When deciding on the plants to incorporate into your butterfly garden, choose a mixture of annuals and perennials. Annuals bloom all summer but must be replanted every spring (after the last frost). Perennials bloom year after year from the same roots but their blooming periods are typically limited to a few weeks or months.  To enable the sight of most of the flowers (and butterflies) in your garden, plant the shortest flowers in front and the tallest ones in the back. Plant flower species in masses as butterflies seem to choose those flowers that are most abundant. Being equipped with a highly sensitive sense of smell, butterflies are able to identify clusters of nectar flowers from quite a distance.

Across the United States, there seems to be little consensus on the flower color or flower species that most attracts butterflies. Some experts claim that butterflies prefer purple, lavender, and pink flowers. Others proclaim red, yellow, and blue blossoms to be the color preference of nectar-seeking butterflies. Some butterfly gardeners insist that Lantana is an excellent butterfly-attracting plant while others insist that it is not.  It is likely the case that different species of butterflies show a preference for different species of flowers. And since different species of butterflies inhabit different regions of the U.S., different flowers may be utilized for nectar in different regions.

 The selection of flowers offered as nectar sources also plays a role in what the butterflies choose as nectar sources. If a garden includes butterfly bushes, Mexican sunflowers, and purple coneflowers, you will likely find most of the feeding butterflies on these flowers. If hungry butterflies do not have the option of feeding on butterfly bushes, Mexican sunflowers, and purple coneflowers though, they will settle for something less desirable just to get their hunger satisfied.

 Though avid North American butterfly gardeners may disagree on many aspects of butterfly gardening, they tend to agree that every butterfly garden should include butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii). Throughout the United States, the flowers of butterfly bush prove to be irresistable to many species of butterflies. Butterfly bushes grow 4' to 12' high, depending upon the variety chosen. Blooming mid July through frost, their fragrant flower spikes may be white, lavender, pink, or purple.

Among the best perennials for attracting butterflies to the garden for feeding are butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Stoke's aster (Stokesia laevis), tickseed (Coreopsis), lavender (Lavandula), blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata, Gaillardia grandiflora)), Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), and pincushion flower (Scabiosa columbaria). Other perennials utilized as butterfly nectar sources include black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), dame's rocket (Hesperis matrolalis), hardy ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum), heliopsis (Heliopsis helianthoides), ornamental oregano (Origanum lacvigatum), pinks (Dianthus), showy stonecrop (Sedum spectabile),  beebalm (Monarda didyma), goldenrod (Solidago), red valerian (Centranthus), daylily (Hemerocallis), hyssop (Hyssopus), Phlox, and Aster.

To ensure the availability of nectar sources throughout the summer, long-blooming annuals should be planted between the perennials you choose for planting. Zinnia, tropical milkweed, Mexican sunflower,  cosmos, verbena, lantana, pentas, strawflower, and heliotrope are good annual choices for the butterfly garden. Experiment with different flower colors to determine what the butterflies in your area seem to prefer.  Just by planting the right flowers in the right place, you will likely attract many species of butterflies to your garden. Amidst these butterflies will probably be Monarchs, Swallowtails, Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, Fritillaries, Hairstreaks, Coppers, and Crescents.  While flower nectar is the chief food source for most butterflies, a few butterfly species prefer to feast on rotting fruit, mud, and/or mammal manure. Red Admirals, Red-spotted Purples, Commas, and Mourning Cloaks are among those butterflies that sometimes dine on rotting fruit. Spring Azures, Eastern Tailed Blues, Sulphurs, and Swallowtails are known to extract nutrients from mud. Viceroys, Red Admirals, Meadow Fritillaries, and other butterfly species periodically feast on mammal manure.

Butterflies add beauty to our world and fascinate people of every age. Entice butterflies to visit your own back yard by planting the flowers that most appeal to them!

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