Is a Butterfly Garden in Your Future?

Filed in Gardening by on August 9, 2015



By Reba Gilliand


How about planting a butterfly garden? Brightly-colored winged creatures would flit about your yard sipping flower nectar. A bit of your landscape would be filled with a variety of colorful flowers throughout the summer season. You could even provide habitat for one of our most cherished butterfly species, Monarchs, whose populations are declining precipitously. Could there be a downside? Maybe…it depends on your point of view. Read on to find out why.


Brightly-colored winged creatures


Butterflies are part of the insect order, Lepidoptera, which combines two Greek words “lepido” (scale) and “ptera” (wings) to characterize butterflies (along with their sisters, the moths) as insects with tiny overlapping scales covering their wings.


So they are winged insects, which you already knew – so what? Well, before they are “winged” they are caterpillars. We all learn about metamorphosis in 5th grade science, but forget about it when we discover leaves on our plants devoured.


For a butterfly to get to its beautiful adult stage, an egg is transformed into a caterpillar with a well-formed head and chewing mouth parts with which to eat its host plant. The caterpillar increases in size as it develops, eating more and more of its host. By the time it has molted four or five times, growing all the while, the host can look pretty ragged.


About the time you are tempted to reach for the pesticide, however, remember the caterpillar will continue its transformation into a hardened pupa, reorganize its body inside its chrysalis, and emerge as a beautiful butterfly.


Colorful garden filled with flowers


For butterflies to flit about a summer garden, you need nectar-producing plants because nectar provides energy for flying and reproduction. Butterflies also pollinate plants through the process of drinking nectar, an important role in our food production.


But to encourage the establishment of butterfly populations that return year after year, you need to provide food for the butterfly-caterpillars too. As they have very limited host ranges, plants need to be specific to a butterfly species. Black Swallowtail caterpillars, for example, feed only on plants in the parsley family; Painted Lady caterpillars on thistles, Dogface Butterfly caterpillars on lead plant, false indigo, and prairie clover, and so forth.


So practically, what does a butterfly garden look like? It contains a variety of native plants, annuals, perennials and shrubs to attract many species of butterflies; flowers blooming successively throughout the season, but particularly late summer when adult butterflies are most active; and contains host plants for different butterfly caterpillars. For a design plan and plant lists, see


Milkweed: Host of the Monarch


Monarchs are a joy to watch as their black-and-orange wings soar and flit about the garden. For eons, great clouds of these beautiful butterflies have made their way back each summer to Minnesota and other Great Lake states from their overwintering home in the highlands of Mexico.


Sadly, Monarch populations are dwindling. Over the past two decades, their numbers have declined by 90 percent. In the winter of 1996-1997, a billion monarchs drooped from branches of trees covering 50 acres at their overwintering site in Mexico; during the 2014 winter, there were about 35 million over only 1.66 acres.


A number of factors account for the decline, but loss of the Monarch caterpillar’s one and only food source, milkweed, is chief among them. Acres of milkweed plants (some estimate a 58% decline) have disappeared as native prairie along the Monarch’s 3,000-mile migration route has been lost to agricultural land, and as weed eradication through pesticide use has increased.


Alarm over the potential loss of Monarchs has prompted the Federal government to take steps to stop the trend. In February of this year, a $3.2 million dollar plan was announced to plant milkweed along public right-of-way along Interstate 35, making a “highway” for the insects as they return from Mexico.


So what about that butterfly garden?


To have butterflies flit about your garden, you would 1) endure some ragged leaves on favorite plants as caterpillars munch away; 2) fight pests with non-toxic remedies such as horticulture oils and insecticidal soaps instead of toxic pesticides; 3) plant nectar-producing plants and hosts of several butterfly caterpillar species, and 4) devote part of your landscape to milkweed to join others in saving Monarchs.


What do you say? Is there a butterfly garden in your future?


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