It’s All a Flutter in the Garden*
*This article was published in the June 2008 issue of Pensacola Magazine
There’s only so much space to add another plant, so many ways you can rearrange your plants, and only so many plants that grow well in the space you have. If you’ve been gardening for a while, you may have experienced the need to re-invent your space to keep things interesting. But have you thought about doing a makeover on your landscape by adding a butterfly garden?
Butterfly gardens have become increasingly popular. With their tenuous, stained-glass wings, butterflies bring a kaleidoscope of color that flutter and float from plant to plant as they feed and lay eggs. Movement in your garden adds excitement, wonder and awe to your sense of fulfillment. For the experienced butterfly gardener the joy comes from watching the life cycle and being involved in it. Being that close to nature provides a relationship that just isn’t available with other types of gardening.
So, what’s all the hubbub about with butterflies? After all, they’re just another invertebrate. However, an annoying insect it is not! The butterfly has long been symbolic to many cultures, my favorite being one of hope and new life. Inspiring poets and songwriters throughout time, the nature of the butterfly’s life cycles is reflective and symbolic of our own human life, with its ebb and flow, waxing and waning, birth and death. The butterfly is always moving and transforming, unveiling and giving us a peek into the great mystery of life itself… even the hope of eternal life. Stop me now before I flutter away into a discourse on metaphysics.
Back to the here and now. Belonging to the insect group called the order Lepidoptera, the butterfly plays important roles in keeping our ecosystem healthy, despite its ephemeral nature. Throughout its short life the butterfly accomplishes a lot besides merely perpetuating its species.
Along with bees, butterflies are pollinators helping a wide variety of native and cultivated flowers maintain existence. Both adult butterflies and their larvae are a food source for small mammals, creatures, and other insects and so contribute to the eco-chain. Butterflies also serve as an “indicator species”, which means that they are one of the first organisms that respond to negative situations in the environment, such as pollution, which ultimately affect human beings.
Under the tutelage of seasoned master gardeners, a group of us just emerged from our own chrysalis to design and plant a butterfly garden at the Escambia County extension center. At our first meeting in March, we dug deep into butterfly gardening books and pamphlets to discover what we needed to attract the widest variety of these beautiful creatures. The three hour allotted time for the meeting sped by as our excitement escalated whenever a favorite plant was mentioned. “Is that a host or a nectar plant?” we newbies buzzed.
As the list of plants grew, the anticipation of shopping for them took our excitement to another level. I felt like I was in a shopping frenzy over shoes! I wonder… was Gov. Lawton Chiles this giddy in 1996 when he proclaimed the Zebra Longwing (Heliconius Charitonius), Florida’s state butterfly? Probably not.
Florida is home to many species of the order Lepidoptera, and in our area several are frequently seen and easily attracted into a garden. According to one area butterfly expert, Emily Peterson, some of the most common are the Monarch, Gulf Fritillary, swallowtails, skippers, and sulphurs. But butterfly gardening is not about just attracting the creatures; it’s about facilitating the entire life cycle of the butterfly. The right variety and combination of plants caters to each stage in this life cycle and “exponentially increases the number of butterflies you’ll have,” explains Peterson, owner of The Garden Gate in Gulf Breeze.
A butterfly has four stages of life, beginning as an egg out of which emerges a caterpillar or larvae. Caterpillars feed on the plant material, also called the host plant, on which its egg was laid. It sheds its skin as it grows and this growth period between each shedding is called an instar. When fully-grown, the caterpillar sheds its skin for the last time and begins the next life stage called the chrysalis, or pupa. And it’s in this stage that the metamorphosis happens. The caterpillar transforms into the butterfly. When it’s ready, the adult butterfly, or imago, crawls out of the chrysalis. Each piece of the cycle is a magical performance, and the butterfly garden is the stage.
Just ask Amelie Yonge, known as Dr. Doolittle to her close friends. She became hooked on butterfly gardening about twelve years ago when helping at a party for one of her middle school daughters. “I began as a backyard bird nerd. What got me started with the butterflies was when a friend told me how frustrated she would become when her husband, a chef, would pick the caterpillars off the parsley. She had planted the parsley for the butterfly larvae and her husband wanted to cook with it!”
It intrigued Amelie that you could attract butterflies with certain plant materials… and she’s been butterfly gardening ever since! In her official wildlife sanctuary yard, Amelie plants milkweed for Monarchs, herbs and citrus for a variety of swallowtails, passion vine for the Gulf Fritillary, and pipe vine for the Pipe- vine Swallowtail, just to name a few. She includes a wide variety of nectar plants for both butterflies and hummingbirds and always has the birdfeeders full for her other feathered friends. When Amelie finds caterpillars she puts them in a special box that contains appropriate larval plant food; then she watches them form the chrysalis and later hatch out as a butterfly.
While planning and planting the butterfly garden at the extension center, we gathered information from the University Of Florida IFAS website, Emily Peterson, and from master gardeners who volunteer at the Navarre Butterfly House. With their assistance, we have compiled guidelines and keys that guarantee success in attracting butterflies.
Pretty in Dirt
As in all gardens, life begins with the soil. Water and location are very important to the well being of the plant but it can only perform as well as the condition of the dirt. Soil amendments boost the performance of all flowering plants, and mushroom compost is the choice amendment for butterfly gardens. Used to grow mushrooms commercially it is rich in chicken manure, bone meal, organic material, and trace minerals. This additive usually comes in bags holding seven to eight gallons, which cover a 4×4 area. Many garden stores carry it, too, however for a large area call the local distributor, Sunbelt Compost, in Milton.
Mushroom compost works wonders in flowerbeds just like the Ever Ready battery it continually pumps out the blooms. One exception: this amendment doesn’t agree with acid loving plants such as azaleas and hydrangeas. Once the compost is spread throughout your planting area, spade it in as deep as the root zone.
Location, Location, Location
Situate your butterfly garden in a sunny site for a couple of reasons. For one, butterflies need heat to fly. According to Peterson, “North of the tropics, butterflies need the temperature to reach eighty degrees; they collect sunlight in the scales of their wings in order to fly. Hot weather and sunny conditions speed everything up in their life cycle and the cooler weather slows them down.” Sunshine is also important for the nectar producing plants to bloom, as is true for most flowering plants. The nectar is the main food source for the adult butterfly.
This is not to say that butterflies don’t enjoy the shade because often it is the near by shrubs and trees that provide the important shelter a butterfly needs from wind, inclimate weather, and predators. Plus, there are some woodland plants that butterflies feed on and lay eggs. Depending on which butterflies you want to attract and how inclusive your garden is determines how much shade you need for your garden. However, the general rule is this: the more sun, the more butterflies.
Room and Board
Each butterfly species has a hearty appetite for a specific plant family, whether it’s nectar for the imago, or host plants for the caterpillar. Making sure to include both types of vegetation increases the number of adult butterflies in your garden. By increasing the variety of both nectar and host plants, the variety of butterfly species you find in the garden expands. When you add host plants, you allow your butterflies to spend their entire life cycle in your yard. Once they lay their eggs, they do not wander far from the larvae host plant, hence you have butterflies visiting your yard daily. Remember, the point of the host plant is food for the caterpillar– so no pesticides! In Peterson’s mind (and other butterfly gardeners would agree), “A well chewed plant is the sign of a successful butterfly garden!” Groups of larval host plants ensure plenty of food for the caterpillar’s voracious appetite and help hide chewed leaves or defoliation.
Adult butterflies replenish their energy with nectar food sources. Colorful, nectar-rich flowers are the mainstay to the garden as butterflies sail from bloom to bloom eating from the smorgasbord planted. Like some busy people who eat standing at the kitchen sink or on the run, some butterflies hover while “nectaring”. Others prefer a placemat and like to rest on a large flat-shaped flower while eating. Providing different shapes of nectar flowers is important, too, because of the length of the butterfly’s proboscis, or tongue that gathers the nectar. Those with a short tongue can’t feed from long tubular flowers.
Here in the Deep South we have butterflies all year long needing food to sustain themselves as they progress through their life cycles, so when planning your garden include nectar and host plant sources available throughout the year. Plant in groupings with large drifts of vivid color and clusters of vegetation: This makes your garden aesthetically pleasing to both the butterflies and people. Diversity of texture in your plants– both horizontal and vertical– enhances your design and helps in the continual attraction of the imagoes. Native plants should be top priority when selecting what you purchase because of the easy adaptability to the environment, therefore, decreasing maintenance.
Male butterflies hang out in packs along mud puddles, creek beds, and streams in the natural world. While they get moisture from dew and nectar sources, at creeks they are able to replace the salts, minerals, and amino acids lost during reproduction. To complete your garden, create artificial mud puddles to attract these drinking or “puddle- clubs”. Place a large, shallow plastic container filled with sand in a hole dug in a sunny location, keeping the rim of the container flush with the ground; then thoroughly wet the sand and keep it moist. Another method would be to line a hole with plastic and fill it with sand or gravel or, on a smaller scale, simply use a terra cotta saucer. Initially mix a small amount of table salt with the sand or add a capful of natural fish emulsion. Those men will belly up to the bar in no time!
After a month of planning, shopping, and planting, our demonstration butterfly garden is ready for the show to begin! We used bright color combinations of red, yellow, purple, pink, and blue. Drifts of red Pentas,Pentas lanceolata, float in front of the chokeberry tree, Aronia arbutifolia, while purple Stokes’ Asters, Stokesia laevis, flank one side and Joe-pye weed, Eupatorium fistulosum, the other. Zinnias, Zinnia asteraceae, and coreopsis, Coreopsis lanceolata, border the edge on one side of the walkway, with bronze fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, and plumbago, Plumbago auriculata, on the other side. Cassia, Sennsa sp., shades the bench, and standing sentry over the puddling area are dwarf agapanthus, Agapanthus africanus, ‘Peter Pan’, while purple verbena, Verbena, sp.,’ Homestead’, meander and crawl in front enticing the male imagoes like Medusa.
And, that’s just an appetizer! There is so much to feast upon– food for the butterflies and food for our souls as we watch the great banquet unfold! Come visit the demonstration gardens at the Escambia County Extension Center on Stefani Road…and the Panhandle Butterfly House in Navarre is a must-see.
If this article has “tickled your fancy,” begin your garden makeover today! The fun thing about butterfly gardening is the randomness of it. It can be wild with fullness and abandonment to form, yielding a riot of color. So if design is a hang up for you, let it go, and spread your gossamer gardening wings to fly!