Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Season for Butterflies

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly

Butterflies tend to be star of the insect world… they’re cheerful, uniquely ornate, and inspire us to fill our gardens with plants that attract the winged creatures.  To attract butterflies you need two types of plants:  nectar plants and host plants. 

Nectar plants provide food for butterflies and other pollinators.  Many nectar plants already find themselves in our gardens due to their showy flowers: Phlox, Bee Balm, Cosmos, Marigolds, Hollyhocks and Zinnias.  Butterflies are attracted to scented and colorful plants, and they tend to prefer vivid shades of purple, pink, orange and yellow. 

Host plants provide a food source for the larval stage of butterflies, otherwise known as caterpillars.  Adults will lay eggs on host plants and when the egg hatches the caterpillar has a ready food source.  The native vine Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia tomentosa, is a host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail.   

Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar

Pawpaws, Asimina triloba, are the host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail, and the Black Swallowtail caterpillar feeds on parsley, fennel, and other Carrot Family plants.  The infamous Monarch Butterfly caterpillars feed on milkweeds (Asclepias species), which contain the toxins cardiac glycosides.  After feeding on the milkweeds, the caterpillars retain the toxins, which makes them less appealing to predators.  

Asclepias syriaca in bloom

Mixing both nectar and host plants is a good way to ensure a diverse butterfly population.  Remember that host plants will be eaten by the caterpillars, meaning you’ll need to be able to tolerate leaves being eaten… caterpillars do tend to have voracious appetites! 

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