Residents of the GTA were treated to an incredible influx of butterflies recently, as thousands of Red Admirals fluttered into the area, driven north early by a mild winter and warm spring weather in the U.S. and Canada. Our regular early arrivals, Mourning Cloaks, Spring Azures and Cabbage Whites, were overshadowed by their showier (and certainly more plentiful) cousins. The media jumped at the opportunity to encourage homeowners to nurture these delicate and beautiful insects by growing butterfly friendly plants in their yards and gardens. Many people want to create urban havens for butterflies, but need simple and effective strategies that don’t break the bank (or your back!). Keep reading if you want to make part or all of your property into a butterfly hotel.
The British naturalist Miriam Rothschild wrote that hopeful butterfly gardeners should “abandon any romantic idea of creating a home for these angelic creatures—the best you can do is to provide them with a good pub.” This is useful advice to the beginning butterfly hotelier, as even the best laid plans can come to naught due to circumstances beyond the gardener’s control. Cold, rain, drought and windy weather can hamper the migration, survival and reproduction of butterflies, as can poor air quality, destruction of native habitat and use of pesticides.
Nevertheless, creating a butterfly garden around your home can be as easy as caring for a conventional yard and garden, and will provide you with hours of pleasure and satisfaction watching the multicoloured magic of butterflies flitting about.
Butterflies need special plants and spaces for different parts of their life cycles. As adults, they require nectar plants and basking and watering spots; to procreate, they need specialized larval food plants; finally, the caterpillars need appropriate, safe places to attach their chrysalises and ride out their transformations.
Butterflies are attracted to flowers in the red/purple and yellow colour groups, although any flowering plants that provide abundant nectar will do. It is important, though, to ensure that there are plants flowering in your garden throughout the growing season. Most of us already do this, in the interest of having lots of colour to enjoy. Many popular garden shrubs and flowers are well suited to the purpose, so you may already have a good start coming up outside your door right now! To enhance your garden further, see the chart Nectar Plants for Butterflies. In it, you will find many native trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. By planting these, you can begin to return your immediate ‘micro-biome’ to a more natural state, providing an urban habitat for butterflies.
When choosing plants, think about when your existing perennials flower, and fill in the gaps with new additions. You can also improve the colour palette of your garden at the same time. Double bonus! Over the years I have added native flowering shrubs and perennials such as Serviceberry (aka Saskatoon berry), Dogwood, Daylily, Bee Balm, Echinacea (Coneflower), Yarrow and Aster, as well as local garden centre finds such as Lilac, Butterfly Bush, Viburnum, Ninebark, Purple Leaf Sandcherry, Rudbeckia, Garden Loosestrife, False Indigo, Early and Late Phlox and Butterfly Weed.
In addition, seriously consider having a ‘wild zone’, where you allow native species to flourish, and let ‘volunteers’ into your garden beds to whatever extent you feel comfortable. Of course, beware of invasive species, but many of these are not native anyway—Purple Loosestrife, Goutweed, and Miscanthus grass, for example. I have been letting my ‘verges’ grow wild, and native Aster, Goldenrod (no, it doesn’t make you sneeze—ask an allergist), Dame’s Rocket, Queen Anne’s Lace, Feverfew, Columbines and Yarrow have all popped up, and sometimes stayed. I have an abundance of Elm saplings in my yard, so the Commas and Question Marks do just fine. Unfortunately, my efforts to get Milkweed started have been unsuccessful so far. It seems to like to choose its own spots, and they are generally odd and often seemingly inhospitable, like cracks in driveways and sidewalks. So if you spot a Milkweed volunteer in a spot you can ignore, do so, and it will likely thrive! Then you may have some Monarch guests.
Like people on a sidewalk patio, butterflies like to bask and have a sip or two. A stone garden bench, stepping stone paths and some fair-sized rocks or small boulders achieve a natural look and provide spots for butterflies to warm up in the morning or on cloudy days. Because they are cold-blooded, they need to warm themselves before they can fly, which is why you don’t see them on cool days or in early morning or evening.
A block or brick wall, a concrete bench or garden decoration will warm them up just fine too. I built a small flagstone bench out of leftovers from making my garden paths, and I have a concrete birdbath with a stone in the middle for both basking and drinking. Even better, if you can keep a small area of sand, limestone screening or pea gravel moist, your winged friends will belly up to the bar nicely. I plan to try a clay saucer with moist sand and a few river stones this year.
Butterfly larvae (aka caterpillars) need special host plants to survive. Most butterfly species can only reproduce if a specific plant species is present, although some will lay eggs on several kinds of host plants. A few of these are also nectar plants for the adults (like Milkweed), but many are nondescript common plants that are considered weeds by most gardeners. Nettles, Milkweed, clovers, thistles and Queen Anne’s Lace are good examples. If you want to have a butterfly nursery on your property, you will have to tolerate some ‘weeds’ and plant plenty of extras for the caterpillars to munch. Your vegetable plot is an excellent place to start. Plant a few more Brassicas and members of the Parsley family (see Larval Foods for Butterflies chart), and grow a row of Alfalfa. Be prepared to accept lots of chewed leaves!
When the caterpillars are ready to shed their skins and form chrysalises, they will crawl about, sometimes over long distances, to find branches and woody stems to hang from. Having trees, shrubs and woody perennials around your yard will give them safe places nearby to attach themselves and transform into adults. Although garden centres would like you to buy adorable ‘butterfly houses’, they are only useful if you have collected eggs, raised the caterpillars by hand, and placed the chrysalises in them. Butterflies are not like birds—their caterpillars don’t recognise the houses as places to pupate.
While you can make every effort to ensure your property is as naturally butterfly friendly as possible and eliminate your use of pesticides, if the municipality and/or your neighbours aren’t on side, then you are an island in the storm for your fluttering friends. There are many small and not so small ways to address this. Support local, municipal, provincial and national initiatives to reduce habitat destruction, replant native species and reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides. Help friends and neighbours create their own butterfly zones on their properties, and do not disturb native plants that grow in your neighborhood.
Article and Photos by Catherine Bacque
|Some Common Butterflies||Larval Foods|
|Monarch||Milkweed, Butterfly Weed|
|Red and White Admiral||Nettles, False Nettle|
|Painted Lady||Nettles, False Nettle, various Thistles, Mallows and Legumes|
|Eastern Comma and Question Mark||Nettles, False Nettle, Elm, Hops, Hackberry|
|Cabbage White||Various Brassicas: Cabbage, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Kale|
|Clouded Sulphur and Orange Sulphur||Sweet Clover, White Sweet Clover, Alfalfa|
|Spring Azure||Dogwood, Viburnum, Wild Cherry|
|Mourning Cloak||Willow, Birch, Elm, Cottonwood, Hackberry|
|Black Swallowtail||Fennel, Parsley, Carrot, Queen Anne’s Lace, Dill, Celery|
|Canadian Tiger Swallowtail||Birch, Aspen, Black Cherry|
|Trees||Serviceberry, Hackberry, Wild Cherry (Chokecherry), Crabapple|
|Shrubs||Butterfly Bush, Serviceberry, Lilac, Wax Leaf Privet, Japanese Privet, Viburnum,Purple Leaf Sandcherry, Dogwood, Ninebark|
|Perennials||Fernleaf Yarrow, Butterfly Weed, Milkweed, Daisy, Aster, Blazing Star, Daylily,Lavender, Bee Balm, Black-eyed Susan, Coneflower, Phlox|
|Annuals||Marigold, Zinnia, Petunia, Sunflower, Cosmos, Nicotiana|
For more information try visiting the following websites:
Photos of common butterflies: http://vankempen.ca/OntarioButterflies.htm
Information on invasive plant species and native alternatives: http://www.ontarioinvasiveplants.ca/
Detailed information about butterfly species: http://www.cbif.gc.ca/spp_pages/butterflies/index_e.php
Taylor’s Guide to Natural Gardening. NewYork: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies. Paul Opler and Vichai Malikul. NewYork: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.