Denise Hitchcock: Butterfly gardening
July 26, 2010
Many varieties of butterflies are found in Colorado. The mourning cloak, black swallowtail and monarch are just a few of the familiar ones floating through Yampa Valley skies. Butterflies can make a beautiful addition to any garden by complementing flowers and foliage with their bright colors and movement. By providing the appropriate environment, you can encourage and prolong the stay of these colorful insects with the food and shelter they need.
Welcome these winged creatures to your landscape. Whether you are rethinking an existing garden, putting in a new flower bed or planting in containers, butterflies have four simple requirements: sun, shelter, food and moisture.
Plenty of sunshine is needed because these cold-blooded insects depend on the sun for warmth. Butterflies are most comfortable and fly best when their body temperature is between 85 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit. You often will see them sunning themselves on rocks for this purpose.
Butterflies seek shelter from wind, rain and predators. Windbreak plantings such as a row of evergreens, large rocks or locating your butterfly garden where your house will block the prevailing breezes will be helpful.
In rainstorms and when escaping from hungry birds, they typically will find shelter by perching on the underside of a leaf or branch. Butterfly house structures are another form of shelter. They are wooden boxes with slotted openings and can be found at many local garden centers.
Because the butterfly goes through a metamorphosis life cycle, a combination of annuals, perennials, trees and woody shrubs will provide the proper environment for all stages of its life. Mass plantings of the same species of flowers and plants will be the most effective way to entice them to feed in your habitat. Also, consider flowers that bloom in sequence to attract and keep these visitors.
Include nectar and host (or larval) plants. Nectar plants provide food for the adult butterfly while host plants are needed for the butterflies to lay their eggs on and offer food for the caterpillars. Each species of butterfly feeds on specific plants. For example, the monarch will lay its eggs on milkweed because the milkweed leaves are the only food the monarch caterpillar will eat.
Our Routt County Extension Office has a fact sheet titled "Attracting Butterflies to the Garden #5.504," which offers a detailed list of what a specific butterfly is attracted to for caterpillar food and nectar. At least one type of each plant is required for a continuous life cycle.
The Extension Office suggests such host plants as dill, parsley, fennel, clover, broccoli, cabbage, alfalfa, hackberry, milkweed and hollyhock. Nectar plants for our area include butterfly bush, clematis, rabbit brush, geranium, lilac, cosmos, sunflower, bee balm and asters. Many of our local garden centers can make suggestions, or visit the Yampa River Botanic Park's butterfly garden for ideas.
Because butterflies cannot drink directly from open water, they find moisture in sandy or muddy puddles. Over-ripened fruit will act as a special treat in a sunny spot.
Avoid using pesticides in your butterfly garden. Remove pests by hand or discourage them with soapy water. Use the assistance of a field guide or our local Extension Office to identify unfamiliar creatures — they just may be butterfly larva.
Denise Hitchcock is a Master Gardener through the Routt County Extension Office. Questions? Call 879-0825.