Friday, June 25, 2010

Do butterflies REALLY like that plant?

That is a question we should all be asking when planning our butterfly gardens.  Lately there is a trend among commercial plant growers to claim just about any flowering plant will attract butterflies. 
One Florida grower that sells to the big box retailers actually prints a big butterfly on the side of their pots and a whole ring of little butterflies all the way around!  It doesn't actually say this is a butterfly plant, but who could blame a novice gardener for being misled?
What does "Butterfly Plant" or "Attracts Butterflies" really mean anyway?  Those phrases give no indication of whether the plant provides nectar for adults or if it is a larval food plant.  Many an uninformed gardener has no doubt purchased a plant that "attracts butterflies" only to later find the plant consumed by voracious caterpillars!  That probably wasn't what they had in mind when they made their purchase.
Another question we should be asking is "WHAT butterflies does the plant attract?"  Many common garden plants are native to other parts of the world, and have been propagated and moved around by avid gardeners.  The butterflies that were attracted to the plant in their native habitat may not even exist in your garden.

Some butterflies prefer to feed on the nectar of specific plants.  They are even more specific about where they lay their eggs.  Some caterpillars are only able to feed on a single species of plant!
So, ask lots of questions before you make your purchase.  Unfortunately, the largest plant retailers rarely have knowledgeable people on their staff.
So what's a butterfly lover to do?  You could do some research online, but here again lots of misinformation is circulating, getting copied and pasted from one website to another.

The best solution is to zero in on your local community.  Visit a neighbor who has a butterfly garden.  Go to a local park or botanical garden and watch where the butterflies spend their time.  Make your observations at various times during the day; some flowers release their nectar at specific times.  Also be aware of which butterflies you already see in your yard.  Planting the right flowers could bring more of them.  Above all don't forget to include some larval food plants.  Your butterfly population can multiply exponentially if they can live out their entire life cycle without leaving your yard!


. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

But voracious catterpilars *are* butterflies, just in another form. If the catterpilars don't survive, we'll have no butterflies.

AaronVFT said...

Love butterflies but hate caterpillars. So far no butterfly attracting plant in my garden.

Ami said...

Very informative post! Being a new gardener, I bring lots of plants into my garden hoping they will attract butterflies. I have pentas, milkweed, lantana, zinnias, porterweed, and some others. So far the most I see is white peacock one, but also some others. Not as many as I hoped. I will do some research onlne for the future planting.

NanaK said...

You are so right that including larval host plants is important to having the butterflies stay in a garden. I only have a few host plants but what a difference they make. Of course, they are planted behind other things as they get raggedy looking from time to time but they are very important plants in my garden.