GARDEN FOR FEBRUARY 9, 2008
One of the most fun things to have in your yard is a butterfly!!! I try to choose plants for both the larvae and the adult. One of my favorites is the Black Swallowtail. It is a fairly large (3 to 3 ½ inches) one with gorgeous markings mostly in black and white. It is easy to think you have 2 separate named butterflies because the female has a fairly large amount of blue on her opened wings while the male has rows of large (for a butterfly) yellowish white spots across both wings.
For the larvae to have food, members of the carrot family such as DILL, FENNEL, PARSLEY, QUEEN ANN’S LACE, and CARROTS are needed as these are the only plants the female will lay her eggs on so the larvae will have something to eat when they hatch. You can find the eggs on the upper surface of a leaf, singly, with a greenish yellow color. The female butterfly checks out her children’s home by stamping her feet on the leaves. This gives her an aroma to say yes or no. The first instar of the larvae that hatches is blackish and looks like a bird dropping to make them less noticeable. The older caterpillars get to be about 2 inches long, have green and black stripes around their body, plus 2 yellow eyespots on each side. I have difficulty finding the eggs but the older instars are fairly easy. If you pick them up they extend 2 orange horns (osmeterium) that stink for protection. Their pupa (chrysalises) may be either green or brown to match where they are. They spend the winter held by a silk thread that spins around its body.
The adults will take nectar from any number of plants. Their favorites are butterfly weed and butterfly bush. They have longer mouth parts than many butterflies so can reach deeper to get the nectar. In my yard they are not an early butterfly. I see the most of them in July and August.
In the front yard I have a patch of DILL. I like it nice and thick so they can hide from the birds easier. Once you have DILL you probably will always have it as it seeds, and seeds, and seeds. Since mine is near the sidewalk I occasionally have people stop and just want to chew some. Others want fresh heads for pickles. One person wanted to make some “dilly bread”.
Dill needs full sun, damp soil, and usually grows to 4 feet high. Since it will cross with FENNEL, which ruins the dill flavor for me, I have FENNEL in the backyard. It is dark and fluffy, not nearly as seedy as DILL, so I start new plants each year.
For the adults, I have BUTTERFLY BUSH (Buddleia sp.) of various colors. They like full sun, not too much water. If you deadhead you can get 2 crops of blooms. I cut mine down to 12 inches in the fall as they bloom on new wood. They also like BUTTERFLY WEED (Asclepsis sp.) as a nectar source as well as many other flowers. For the male butterflies to have their “puddling” parties I have used a shallow bird bath in the sun with sand, clay, and a little manure. In the center is a rock (or brick) for them to land on. This needs to be kept fairly wet so they can drink. They can not swim so don’t make a pond!!! At least one of my books says to add a little sugar! This delicious mixture gives them the salts they need to prepare for mating. Another author suggested a chip from a salt block that is used for cows. Another food they love is a hunk of watermelon. Leave the rind to keep the melon from drying out too soon. Also leave some of the red to make it easier for them to drink.
A smaller butterfly that migrates from the south is the PAINTED LADY. It doesn’t appear in southeast Nebraska and south central Nebraska yards until after May. Then in September they leave to go south again so our highest numbers are usually in September when they migrate. Several years ago we had an unbelievable migration. One day I noticed my coneflowers were looking a little ragged. This was a surprise as I never worry about RUDBECKIAS or ECHINACAE here in Nebraska. I found hundreds of inch long brownish larva with a yellow line down the sides of the abdomen. PAINTED LADY BUTTERFLY (Vanessa cardiai) also known as THISTLE BUTTERLY, are probably the most widely one found in the United States. They even go well up into Canada. The adults feast on any number of nectar plants. They like low vegetation and a variety of flowers. The eggs are usually blue or green on top of the leaf, and have ridges all around. After hatching, they eat in groups on HOLLYHOCKS, THISTLES, and many other plants. When you see the adults, at first sight one gets an impression of dull red with dots. If you can see the underside of the butterfly while resting, there are four white eyespots. The adults are fun as they don’t mind resting on people who hold still. They can also be hand fed with sugary syrup. I see many of them on my VERBENA BONARENSIS, a tall (3 feet) thin plant that reseeds itself vigorously after you first grow it. The plant is not fussy as to where it grows except for full shade and needs absolutely no attention after you thin it out in spring.
JOE PYE WEED, a plant that likes wet places is another favorite of many butterflies. A variety of plants, not in singles but in bunches, are best for a butterfly garden. Purple and yellow seem to be their favorite colors. Shrubs and trees provide protection from wind and give a place to hide while resting. After a cool night, butterflies can be seen with their wings stretched out to absorb heat as they cannot fly until warm.
Fairly early in spring you may see 2 inch yellow butterflies that flit up and down as they fly. Here in Lincoln they are likely to be the CLOUDED SULPHUR. Some authors call it the COMMON SULPHUR. The male has sharp black borders on their front wings. The female wing edges are not nearly as bright. In fact, some of the females can be pale yellow or white. They like to lay their eggs on the underside of the leaf of legumes such as peas, beans, and clover. The eggs are a light green. The adults like a variety of flowers so you need to have a long season set of blooms as they stay quite late and live over winter in the pupa form. They need an open area with a variety of flowers. Dandelions suit them fine. The adults warm up with their wings closed but tilt their entire body toward the sun. They are also call “puddlers”.
In my yard JOE PYE WEED, BUTTERFLY BUSH, BUTTERFLY WEED, COSMOS, PENTA, ASTERS, CONEFLOWERS, LIATRIS, and LANTANA seem to have the most butterfly visitors. This summer I hope to add QUEEN ANN’S LACE to my collection. This is a favorite of BLACK SWALLOWTAILS.