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Backyard butterflies

How to attract them to your garden
Monarch butterfly on a coneflower.

Bee balm, salvia, coneflower, milkweed, and butterfly bush often come up in the conversation about plants for butterfly gardening. There are, however, some other (possibly unexpected) plants you can add to your garden in order to attract a larger number of butterflies and in turn other pollinators. With garden season now in full swing, I thought it would be a great time to talk about pollinator plants, but specifically, these unexpected plants that can benefit and increase the pollinators in your garden. 

When planning a butterfly garden, it’s important to first think about the lifecycle of the butterfly. Like all other insects, butterflies start off as an egg. That egg hatches and out pops a larva, called a caterpillar. During their stage as a caterpillar, the insect will do basically one thing—eat! Once they have eaten their fill of their “host plants” and grown significantly, the caterpillar will pupate and form a chrysalis, or a cocoon if they are a moth. After weeks or sometimes months in their chrysalis, out will hatch the adult butterfly. 

There are hundreds of beautiful nectar-producing plants that will attract these butterflies and they are an important part of every butterfly garden. The purpose of this article is to focus on some of the host plants that are vital to the caterpillar stage of the butterfly. It is these plants that the adult butterflies will lay their eggs on, and their caterpillars will feed on. Adding this food source will encourage your garden to attract all stages of butterfly development, not just their adult flying stage. Butterflies have different host plant requirements depending on what species you are trying to attract, so I thought I’d focus on some of the most common butterflies that can be found locally. 

Red Admiral butterflies are a species you may be seeing more often in the garden this year. This migratory butterfly is known for also having large population booms and busts and has been prevalent this year. If you see a butterfly flying erratically in your garden, it’s most likely a Red Admiral. When at rest you can see the brilliant red stripe that goes through their black wings. The host plant of the Red Admiral is nettle—whether it be false nettle or stinging nettle, the Red Admiral will lay its eggs on both. The Question Mark and Comma butterflies, sometimes called “Anglewinged” butterflies, will also use nettle as a host plant.

If you do any herb gardening, you may have already had experience with Black Swallowtail caterpillars. The Black Swallowtail will lay its eggs on parsley, fennel, dill, and Queen Anne’s lace. Before harvesting herbs and anything in the carrot family, check for their bright orange eggs or spotted caterpillars. I have started planting parsley, dill, and fennel among my nectarproducing plants in hopes of enticing more Black Swallowtails. Another Swallowtail species, the Tiger Swallowtail, will lay its eggs in the treetops of trees like tulip poplar and sweet bay magnolia. If you see a large yellow butterfly flying among the treetops, it is most likely a Tiger Swallowtail. 

Large trees can also be host plants. Willows are host plants for butterflies like the Viceroy, Mourning Cloak, and the Red-spotted Purple. Maple trees host a variety of caterpillars—including those of Giant Silk moths like the Cecropia, Polyphemus, Imperial, and Rosy Maple Moths. Oaks are a fabulous host to caterpillars including many Hairstreak butterfly species. 

Your vegetable plants might be getting nibbled on by another caterpillar from the Cabbage White butterfly. The Cabbage White is an introduced species, but it is probably also the most common butterfly you will see in your garden. These white butterflies will sip nectar from many blooming plants and will lay their eggs on cabbage and other vegetables like broccoli, kale, radishes, cauliflower, and more. 

Some common backyard plants that people often pull can also be host plants to butterflies. Plantain is the host plant for the Common Buckeye and Baltimore Checkerspot. White clover and dandelion are host plants for the Clouded Sulphur. Violets will be used by Fritillaries to lay their eggs on and around. 

There are butterfly feeders and houses that can be put in the garden to try to attract more butterflies, but the best thing you can add to your yard besides plants is a butterfly puddler. Butterflies will often congregate around a puddle or damp, muddy place in a behavior known as “puddling.” They will use these wet areas to siphon nutrients from the sand and soil. You can make one of these butterfly puddlers simply with a plant saucer or birdbath. In this small, shallow container, add a mix of sand, soil, rocks and a little salt. Add some water so the puddler is always damp. The rocks will provide landing spots for the butterflies to rest while they siphon out minerals from the soil and sand mixture.

Finally, the most important tip I can give, is to avoid pesticides in the garden. Pesticides will kill the insects you don’t want, but they can also kill beneficial insects which doesn’t give any of the pollinators a fighting chance. You may be very surprised at how avoiding pesticides encourages more natural predators that will eat the creatures you are trying to avoid in the yard. 

It’s always fun to create a diversity of color using flowers in the garden, but with the addition of some caterpillar host plants you may start seeing an addition of color from butterflies and other pollinators. Increasing the amount of host plants will provide your garden with the habitat butterflies require to survive and thrive. 

Liz Magnanti is co-owner of the Bird House in Brighton.

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