By Mary Glazer
I’ve heard gardeners refer to butterflies as “flying flowers.” I first became interested in butterfly gardening years ago when I noticed a neighbor’s yard with dozens of fluttering butterflies, and not just one species. It was a sharp contrast to my own yard, despite an equal amount of flowers, with only an occasional fly-by visitor. At the time the butterflies in my yard seemed to be heading somewhere else.
After reading up on the subject, talking to local experts, and joining the North American Butterfly Association, I learned it was really quite simple to attract butterflies to my yard. Eventually I taught community education classes about the topic.
Similar to attracting birds—which need food, water, and a place to nest—butterflies get all of their needs met from two sources: host plants and nectar plants. When I lecture about this topic, I bring a martini glass and a baby bottle. Yes, the difference is that dramatic between adult butterflies and their juvenile caterpillar predecessors.
This was the disparity between my yard and my neighbor’s: I only provided the nectar plants (almost anything that flowers) for the adult butterflies. Sure they stopped by for a drink but were quickly on their way. What I didn’t have was host plants, the ones their caterpillars eat. Also, what I didn’t know at the time is different species of butterfly caterpillars only consume certain plants.
I think we’ve all known a picky eater in our day—the kids who only want to eat one type of food. Butterfly caterpillars are like that, and for this reason the adult female butterflies only lay their eggs on the plant their caterpillars eat. For example: monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed; zebra longwing butterflies lay their eggs on passion vine; black swallowtails look for bronze fennel. And yellow sulfur butterflies lay eggs on the cassia plant.
Now that I know this I make sure to have snacking plants for the caterpillars that one day turn into wonderful butterflies. I’m not about to give them a reason to move on quickly.
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