In order to enjoy a garden filled with colorful, graceful butterflies, you must be willing to put up with caterpillars, too. If that works for you, here are some ways to lure these lovely insects to your landscape.
You can make your garden more attractive to butterflies by providing food, shelter and water. Butterflies like sunny environments where they won't be blown about by the wind. A garden with windbreaks such as shrubs, fences, rocks and other structures provide a good butterfly environment. And resting places such as a flat rock where they can warm themselves help keep these cold-blooded beauties happily at home in your garden.
If you can provide a damp mud-puddle area for butterflies, there are some species that congregate here. The mud puddles contain some salts and other minerals craved by butterflies.
With regard to the types of plants to grow in your garden, you'll need those that provide caterpillar food and those that offer nectar to adult butterflies. Different plants feed different types of butterflies, so you'll need a variety of plants to attract a variety of butterflies. In general, caterpillars require a specific plant on which to feed while the adult butterflies are happy to obtain nectar from a variety of flowers.
The black swallowtail caterpillar, for example, feeds on dill, parsley, fennel and carrot while the adult butterfly will visit butterfly weed, alfalfa and thistle for nectar.
The two-tailed swallowtail caterpillar feeds on ash and chokecherry trees while its adult version eats the nectar of geraniums, thistles and milkweed.
The yellow sulfur butterflies eat alfalfa in both caterpillar and adult stages although the adults like asters, marigolds, phlox and rabbitbrush, too.
The beautiful blue Colorado hairstreak, our state insect, feeds on Gambel's oak. The caterpillars eat the oak leaves while the adults rest in the Gambel's oak while feeding on sap from the tree, raindrops and honeydew left by aphids and other insects. This butterfly, in the rarest of butterfly colors (purple with orange), does not feed on flowers.
In addition to the butterfly species mentioned above, our part of the state hosts, for brief periods, the beautiful Monarch butterfly, several brushfoot butterflies including Painted Lady, and fritillaries, large, showy butterflies.
As a general rule for attracting butterflies, populate your garden with simple flowers planted in masses of color in the sun. Large, complicated flowers are difficult for butterflies to land and feed on. You'll also want to avoid plants that depend on the wind to pollinate (think aspen catkins and cottonwood trees).
To see a butterfly garden in action, stop by the Yampa River Botanic Park and check out the butterfly garden near the park's west entrance.
Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or: firstname.lastname@example.org