How can you help save the diminishing population of Monarch butterflies? Grow herbs! Plant milkweed! Scatter seeds of summer annuals! The plants will grow, the flowers bloom, and butterflies will show up and do their thing.
But first, before you even purchase one flat of summer annuals or buy a packet of seeds, do your research. What kind of butterfly species appear in your region? Where do they live? When are they usually sighted? Check out a global distribution map online to determine the answers to those questions. Consult a plant hardiness zone map for flowers appropriate to your region.
Your next step is to consider soil, light, and air flow. Butterfly plants prefer soil that’s well-drained but rich in organic matter such as compost. At least six hours of sunshine and partial shade is best for most annuals and perennials that attract butterflies. Make sure your yard is not in a “wind tunnel”! To soften the air flow for tissue-thin butterfly wings, include barrier plants such as trees, shrubbery, hedges and fences, the ell of your house.
Now, after you have considered all those requirements, you are ready to design a garden plan and choose the plants that yield the nectar that butterfly species in your area most favor.
In the illustration below left, a female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sips nectar from cluster blossoms of a buddleia or “butterfly bush.” I have been unable to identify the other smaller butterfly for certain. It could be a juvenile Monarch (Danaus plexippus)..
(1) In this stage, consider where best to site your butterfly garden. For example, I can observe butterflies as well as birds while I sit on my courtyard in the northeast ell of my house. From there, my eyes sweep the whole back yard, but stop short of the east lane — now, that’s a wind tunnel! — leading to the front gate.
If you lack space for an in-ground garden, you can design a container garden for your front entrance or apartment balcony, as European city dwellers do.
(2) Provide a spot for resting and sunning, such as a small rock cairn, garden sculpture, even the rim of a shallow water dish. One of my water dishes holds a small sculptured turtle, a perfect perch for a tired butterfly.
A Nickerbean Blue (Cyclargus ammon) perches on a warm rock pile.
Little mud puddles from rain or soaker hoses attract butterflies, too, when my resident robin isn’t bathing in one. A saucer of wet sand works, too.
HINT: Don’t be fooled by so-called butterfly houses, unless you want one as a garden ornament. Unlike nesting birds, butterflies don’t live in houses. Nor do they nest. They lay eggs right out in the open among herbs such as dill, fennel, parsley, white clover in the lawn, and, of course, milkweed. (More about milkweed next week.)
(3) Plan to develop a heady nectar banquet of summer annuals such as sweet alyssum pungent in honey fragrance — a particularly enticing aroma for butterflies and bees, especially in midday heat. Other choices include black-eyed Susan, blue cornflower, cosmos, globe amaranth, heliotrope, larkspur, nicotiana, phlox, salvia, sunflower, zinnia.
Buddleia — butterfly bush — heads the list of perennial cluster blooms that attract butterflies, followed by asters, bee balm, Joe Pye weed, and milkweed. Yellow umbels of yarrow attract Swallowtail butterflies like shining beacons standing tall above pink phlox.
Another Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sips through a bent “straw” from a buddleia. Notice that each floweret is tubular, perfect for butterflies as well as hummingbirds.
You can find other plant suggestions by touring public butterfly gardens in your area and by downloading the Monarch Plant List at http://www.pollinator.org.
(4) Remember to include children in your butterfly garden. One of my favorite books from childhood had a picture of a little boy chasing a butterfly with a long net attached to a stick, another one of a child’s hand holding a single swallowtail resting on her outstretched finger. Children love these delicate creatures they call “flutterbys”; they’re especially fascinated by all the stages of the butterfly life cycle.
(5) Avoiding insecticides should go without saying. Don’t even consider using them in your butterfly garden! Learn to put up with a few aphids and leaf hoppers, or simply spray your plants daily with a fine mist until the infestation ends. Once a week, you can squirt a bit of liquid soap into your spray.
NEXT WEEK: Milkweed for Monarchs
NOTE: If you live in central Washington state, please join me at the Monarch Butterfly Release Party hosted by Cowiche Canyon Conservancy on Sunday, September 9th, 2-4 p.m., Cowiche Creek Brewing Company, 514 Thompson Road, Cowiche (west from Yakima). Contact Cindy Dunbar, Operations Support, at 509-248-5065 / www.cowichecanyon.org for specific directions and further information.