Select butterflies by selecting right plants

June 26, 2013 

I am not much of a Mr. Fix-it. Some may think of this as a major character flaw, but I figure my superb fishing skills more than make up for this deficit.

Of course, when the car needs repair, my fishing skills will not do the job. I tried using fishing line to make car repairs, but it did not work out. I reckon I should have cut the lures off first.

I do have some gardening skills. Of course, I can garden and plan for fishing at the same time. While tilling the garden, I collect earthworms for fish bait.

Also, some caterpillars we find in the garden make good bait, but I had to find a new place to store the fish bait after the daughters unexpectedly found a can of catalpa worms in the fridge. I reckon I should have warned them first. They are still in therapy.

Of course, I am joking -- at least about some things. (Catalpa worms do store well in the fridge.) However, I do not always make fish bait out of the creatures I find in the garden. Sometimes our family makes pets out of them. We have enjoyed finding frogs and toads, watching snakes and rabbits, feeding spiders, etc.

Some of our favorite garden friends have been butterflies. Butterflies are fun to watch and fun to grow. You can actually garden for them.

We have enjoyed watching the butterfly’s interesting life cycle. The butterfly lays eggs that hatch into caterpillars. The caterpillars feed on specific plants until they become a pupa -- a resting stage. One example of a pupa is a cocoon. Eventually, the adult butterfly emerges from the pupa.

Butterflies need several things to survive and reproduce. The young butterflies (caterpillars) have to have specific forage plants. These are plants they feed on to grow from caterpillars to butterflies. The adult caterpillars must have nectar plants to feed on. Butterflies also need a source of water. Finally, you must avoid using pesticides in a butterfly garden because this will kill developing caterpillars. Even organic pesticides can kill caterpillars.

Caterpillars are particular about the plants they eat. To attract certain types of butterflies, determine what their caterpillars eat and plant those plants. For instance, butterfly milkweed is a great plant for Monarch butterflies. The caterpillars eat the leaves, and the butterflies can feed on nectar from the flowers.

Passion vine (also called maypop) and pansies are excellent plants for some Fritillary caterpillars. Other good forage plants for caterpillars include many grasses, wildflowers and native plants. Some include willows, asters, sweet bay, parsley, fennel, wild cherry, members of the cabbage family and legumes.

Remember that forage plants will not always look good while the caterpillars are feeding. Expect chewed leaves, stripped branches, etc. The caterpillars need to consume these plants.

Consider establishing an unmowed meadow with wildflowers and other plants for caterpillars. Research your favorite butterflies online to find their preferences and then plant these.

Mow your caterpillar meadow at the end of the caterpillar season -- November after many plants have gone to seed.

Adult butterflies need nectar plants. Often butterflies are less finicky about which nectar plants they use. You can find nectar plants that are trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials and even some fruits. See a more complete list at the publication at the end of this column.

Three plants that are very good for butterflies include lantana, butterfly bush (buddleia) and pentas. These attract adult butterflies and can be supplemented with some plants to feed the caterpillars.

Butterflies need a source of water. It must be in a very shallow container. Moist sand is actually an excellent water supply for butterflies. You can also use a shallow dish with water containing a flat stone for butterflies to rest upon.

Avoid using pesticides -- especially around caterpillars. The caterpillar you kill today would have been a butterfly next month. Even low toxicity or natural pesticides can kill small caterpillars. Expect to live with some insect injury to plants. The plants usually survive without using an insecticide.

See this publication where I found some of this information and do a little research to find the best plants for your butterfly garden: www.caes.uga.edu/applications/publications/files/pdf/C%20975_2.PDF

Willie Chance works with the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture and helps train the turf and landscape industry.

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