Gardening for Flying Flowers

Gardening for Flying Flowers

I like to think of the butterflies in my garden as my "flying flowers." For truly, that is what they are!

If your dream is to have your very own Garden of Eden, complete with beautiful butterflies, there are specific host plants you should plant that will provide for larval growth and adult feeding. Before you begin to create a butterfly garden, it is necessary to first learn more about the magical butterfly itself.

Just exactly what is a butterfly?

The insect order known as “lepidoptera” is made up of butterflies and moths. Butterflies account for about 8 percent of this species of insects, while the other 92 percent consists of moths.

Butterflies use their tiny, paper-thin wings in flight while searching for specific hosts for egg-laying. They also search for plants and flowers containing nectar for adult feeding while flying. Butterflies need nectar for energy to fly and to reproduce. Tiny scales cover the adult butterfly’s wings that aid them during these critical searches.

On close inspection, you will see that butterflies have very large eyes, allowing them to see in every direction without turning their heads. This unique feature of their anatomy helps them locate flowers and larval host plants more easily. They have a mouthpart called a proboscis, which they use for probing and sucking nectar from flowers. All butterflies have a club- shaped antennae that are most often feathery. However, their antennaes can be very differently shaped, depending upon the species.

Butterflies have evolved a mechanism that isolates and concentrates certain noxious host plant chemicals into their caterpillars. Only female butterflies search for the specific host plants that will provide these chemicals to their caterpillars. These host plants are where the female butterfly will eventually lay her eggs. During pupation, these same chemicals are distributed into the wings and bodies of the butterflies, making them distasteful to predators such as birds.

Each butterfly begins life as an egg, laid either singly or in clusters on a host plant. From there, its tiny caterpillar emerges and begins to feed on the host plant. Before the adult butterfly emerges from its caterpillar, it must crawl out of its skin about five times before changing into a pupa. After the butterfly finally emerges, it spreads its gloriously colored wings and flies away. This incredible, almost mystical, process of development is called metamorphosis.

How will the butterfly survive?

After taking flight, the butterfly immediately begins its lifelong search for nectar to sustain its life. This is where you as an informed butterfly gardener can play a critical role in helping the butterfly to survive. By planting flowers and shrubs that produce nectar, you will enable the butterfly to thrive and multiply.

Besides being beautiful and entertaining, butterflies play a critical role in our world. They serve as plant pollinators, and therefore help hold together the delicate fabric of nature as they feed from flowers and shrubs. The result of insect feeding in pollinating plants has been proven to be even more reliable than pollen being transported by the wind.

Selecting a butterfly garden site or habitat

Butterflies prefer a site that is sunny for at least 5-6 hours a day and protected from the wind. A good water supply should also be available. Another consideration is to have your soil tested to determine its chemical makeup and texture. This is important so you will know which plants to choose that will thrive in your soil. Keeping your garden as natural as possible will also attract more butterflies and a wider variety of species.

Nectar preferences and planting tips

After your site has been prepared, you are finally ready to select your plants. Selecting the right plants is a major key to successful butterfly gardening.

First, choose nectar plants that are sun-loving.  Butterflies prefer pink, purple, or white flowers and single flowers rather than double flowers. Listed here are some of the many nectar-producing, cultivated flowers most butterfly species prefer:
Asters, blackeye susans, Coreopsis, daylilies, hibiscus, lavender, goldenrod, orange-eye butterfly bush, purple coneflower, rosemary, verbena, coral bells, cosmos, daisies, impatiens, petunias, phlox, and zinnias.

Arrange plants with the shorter plants in the front and taller plants in the back of your flower bed. Larval food plants should be placed in less obvious areas, perhaps even hidden. For optimal butterfly attraction, plant in groups of one color rather than single plants of differing colors. Butterflies will often cover an entire group of plants of the same color while feeding, offering you a spectacular show of their own living colors. So keep your camera ready!

Consider planting so that you will have continuous blooms throughout spring, summer and fall. Doing this will ensure that your butterfly families will have the nectar they need on a continual basis from your garden.

Other attractants

Butterflies, like all insects, are cold-blooded and can’t regulate their internal body temperature, so they will want a place to bask in the sun. You can provide a simple basking area by placing a few large rocks in a sunny spot in your garden. They also love puddles, so make sure you allow for a few “puddling” areas. Other supplemental nectar can be provided through small pieces of fruit, such as citrus, apples, or bananas placed in a small container in your garden spot. You may also wish to purchase or make a hibernation box for your butterflies to overwinter in. These have become a very popular item in garden stores recently. 

A final critical tip

Avoid the use of broad spectrum pesticides! The use of these pesticides kills the caterpillar larva, resulting in less or no butterflies frequenting your garden in the future. Alternate control methods such as Soap-Shield can be used. If you are troubled with pest insects on certain plants, you can always spot treat those plants individually. The upside of not using chemical pesticides is the subsequent increase of natural garden enemies such as spiders, lacewings or ground beetles that will help control other unwanted pests.

Enjoy your garden!

Your butterfly garden should primarily be created with your personal enjoyment in mind. However, there are also many other worthy reasons for butterfly gardening that will be addressed in future articles. This article barely covers the tip of the iceberg when it comes to butterfly gardening. If you are a gardener who wants to increase the visits of free-spirited, magical “flying flowers” to your garden, then butterfly gardening is for you!

As a first proponent of butterfly gardening, Jo Brewer wrote, “A garden is as static as a painting until butterflies bring it to life.”

About this Author