In East Texas Gardens
I love to see butterflies in the garden. It’s not because I take awesome photos of butterflies – my photos are generally blurry – nor is it because I’m a budding entomologist – my knowledge of butterflies is limited to swallowtails and “orange” – but because I love the movement that butterflies bring to a garden.
First the basics: Butterflies are insects that go through four distinct life stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly. It’s important to know this, as we gardeners sometimes are overzealous at removing insect eggs and “worms” (caterpillars) from our plants. If you’re indiscriminate in applying pesticides, your butterfly population will suffer along with the pests you are trying to annihilate. So the first and most important guideline for inviting butterflies to your garden is to reduce your use of pesticides.
Like all creatures, butterflies need food, water, shelter, and a place to raise their young. These are relatively simple to provide.
Guideline No. 2 for inviting butterflies: Plant nectar-rich flowers (and don’t spray them with pesticides).
Butterflies eat a liquid diet; for most butterflies that means nectar. When a butterfly lands on a flower, it unrolls its long straw-like proboscis and inserts it deep into a flower to drink the nectar. Some flowers are more attractive to butterflies – think of plants with lots of blooms that are close together. In my garden, if I could have only one flower for butterflies, it would be the old-fashioned garden phlox (Phlox paniculata). It is a rare summer day that I don’t have swallowtail butterflies on my phlox. The flowers at the Wood County Arboretum that attract the most butterflies also include lantana, salvia, black-eyed susan, butterfly weed, blue mist flower, and coneflowers. Many of these flowers are in the aster family, characterized by flower heads composed of many individual florets. Each individual flower is a separate nectar source, so one visit provides a lot of nectar.
Butterflies also feed on the flowers of shrubs like abelia, vitex, and butterfly bush, with their tubular blooms on each stem. An old-fashioned butterfly favorite for shady spots is Cashmere bouquet, also called Mexican hydrangea, a shrubby perennial with broad pink blooms consisting of lots of small nectar-filled flowers. And some native trees have blooms that are attractive to butterflies, such as sumac and Mexican plum.
Color is also important to attracting butterflies – some like red or orange flowers, but to attract the widest range of butterflies, remember WYPP: white, yellow, pink, and purple. Many of the plants listed above have blooms in these color ranges. Also select single versus double flowers, as singles tend to have more nectar. Finally, some newer hybrids may sacrifice nectar as growers breed for larger or longer-lasting flowers, so try to buy old-fashioned varieties.
As an aside: nectar is high in sugar, but butterflies also need salts and other minerals for optimal reproductive health. You may see them on a damp spot of soil, looking like they’re resting. This behavior is called “puddling,” and the butterflies drink from the damp soil to get the salts. I have some sandy paths that I keep raked (so I can avoid stepping on snakes), and the butterflies often congregate there. Leave a similar spot in your garden, or build a simple puddling station – email me for directions.
Guideline No. 3: Provide protection from the weather (and don’t spray pesticides).
Butterflies don’t need butterfly houses for shelter, but they will appreciate some protection from the wind and rain. If you plant your butterfly garden quite densely, the plants themselves will offer shelter from wind. Include trees, woody shrubs, ornamental grasses, rock piles, and thickets, and the butterflies will have a place to hunker down in a rain storm or at night. I like the cottage-garden look, so I intersperse ferns or grasses among the flowers, as well as some shrubs that like to form thickets, such as Virginia sweetspire and weeping butterfly bush. These encourage butterflies to stick around, even through storms, and provide them hiding places from predators.
Guideline No. 4: provide food for the caterpillars to eat (and don’t spray pesticides).
Butterflies need a place to raise and feed their young, and caterpillars eat leaves. Butterflies will only lay eggs on the specific plant species that is food for their caterpillars (called a larval food source). I think every grade-schooler in Texas knows that monarch caterpillars eat milkweed – after all, the monarch is our state insect. Other butterflies are just as selective in food for their caterpillars. Black swallowtail caterpillars will lay waste to your parsley, dill, and fennel plants, and gulf fritillary caterpillars can defoliate your passion-vine. If you want to have butterflies in your garden, then you must tolerate damaged foliage on the larval food sources. Luckily, a lot of larval food sources are trees, so the damage isn’t as noticeable – for example, the giant swallowtail feeds on citrus and Hercules club, the viceroy feeds on cottonwood, and the question mark feeds on all elms. Planting native trees can provide larval food sources for many butterflies.
Reduce your use of pesticides; plant nectar-rich flowers; provide protection from the weather, and provide plants for the caterpillars. By following these four simple guidelines, you too can invite butterflies to linger in your East Texas garden.
Lin Grado is the garden manager for the Wood County Arboretum & Botanical Gardens in Quitman, and is there each Wednesday from 8 a.m. till noon during the summer – she’ll show you the butterfly garden for inspiration. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org for a list of common butterflies for Texas and their larval food sources, and a list of Texas-tough plants that are great nectar sources.