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Butterfly Gardens

Butterfly Garden. (Photo: Whatknot via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND.)

This episode of Nature Notes was previously aired on March 22, 2010, and was written by Cathryn Hoyt, then-Executive Director and current Director of Research at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute.

Butterflies are the essence of summer. Their bright colors add just the right touch to a flower garden. But have you ever wondered why your neighbor has more butterflies than you do? Try creating a butterfly garden!

Watching butterflies in the northern Chihuahuan Desert is particularly rewarding because of the diversity of butterflies that we have here. At the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, approximately 100 species have been recorded in the past 3 years.

One key to attracting butterflies to your yard is to remember that native plants attract native pollinators. You can have a stunningly beautiful yard full of hybrid tea roses, daylilies, and petunias and see few, if any butterflies.

Butterflies need two types of plants: nectar sources for the adult butterflies and food sources for the caterpillars.

Milkweeds, or other plants that get eaten by caterpillars, are what we call “host plants.” In fact, if you really want to attract butterflies, having lots of host plants is the way to go. Most butterflies are very picky about where they’ll lay their eggs. If they lay their eggs on the wrong kind of plant, the larvae will die before they become an adult butterfly. So host plants are critically important.

Host plants are as diverse as the butterflies. Our native emory oaks and gray oaks serve as the host plants for the Poling’s Hairstreak. Tiny skippers lay their eggs on native grasses, while sulphurs and blues prefer plants in the pea family such as sennas, daleas, and kidneywood.

Most (but not all) adult butterflies sip nectar from flowers. They tend to like brightly colored flowers that are flat or have “landing platforms” for them to perch on as they feed. At the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, butterflies are almost always seen nectaring on verbena, thistles, lantana, mistflower and salvias.

When planning your butterfly garden, don’t just concentrate on flowers. Butterflies also need bare spots or large, flat stones where they can bask in the sun. If you can provide small patches of moist soil, you may see large numbers of butterflies congregating and feeding on the minerals in the soil. This behavior is called “puddling.”

As mentioned before, not all butterflies are nectar feeders. Some feed exclusively on rotting fruit. To attract these butterflies, a simple “butterfly feeder” consisting of a large, flat dish suspended from the branch of a tree can be made. Place rotten bananas, the rind from melons, or other overripe fruit in the dish and watch the butterflies come. Fruit feeders include the glorious Red-spotted Purple, Mourning Cloaks and Hackberry Emperors.

If you plant lots of milkweeds and nectar sources, your butterfly garden may even qualify as a Monarch Way station. The Monarch Way Station Program encourages people across the United States to offset the loss of milkweeds and nectar sources in natural habitats by creating “way stations” in home gardens, schools, parks, along roadsides or on unused plots of lands. These way stations provide critical resources for the monarch butterflies as they make their annual migration from their summer homes in the north to their overwintering sites in Mexico and back again in the spring.