Everything’s coming up, uh, butterflies

I saw my first butterfly of the season the other day. I am but a rookie lepidopterist, so I don’t know what kind it was. All I saw was a streak of black, not nearly enough to be of help when looking it up in my field guide. As it swooped over my brown, sleeping garden, I worried about what in the world it would find to eat in these early days of spring. What was it doing here so soon?

The only thing I’m sure of is that it wasn’t one of our Eastern black swallowtails. It’s wings didn’t have the right yellow spots and blue patches. I say “our” swallowtails because for the last two summers my husband, Mike, and I have tried raising swallowtails on our front porch. We got the idea, or I should say I got the idea and my ever-patient husband went along with it, from a man named Jim.

I interviewed Jim for a story I was writing about butterfly gardening. While we were talking in his yard an Eastern black swallowtail flew over to the dill growing at our feet. She quickly arched herself over the plant and deposited three tiny yellowish eggs before flying off. Jim had seen this a million times and still he shushed me so he could watch in amazement. Me, well, I’d never taken the time to think about where butterflies come from. So this whole egg idea left me stammering.

As it turns out, Jim explained, life as a butterfly is pretty tough business. Most butterflies only live a few weeks. During that time they spend the bulk of their energy flitting feverishly from flower to flower trying to sip all the nectar they need to stay aloft and do their lifecycle thing. The hardest part, though, is making it to the butterfly stage at all. All kinds of insects like to munch on tasty butterfly eggs. Those that actually hatch and become caterpillars, well, once those little guys get fat and juicy they often get scooped up by hungry birds or mistaken for garden pests and sprayed with pesticide or picked up and squished underfoot.

It’s easy to understand why gardeners aren’t happy with these caterpillars. They can do an awful lot of damage very quickly. But I find it’s much easier to tolerate them now that I know they’re going to grow up to be butterflies. (Although some ant, bee and wasp larvae can look a lot like butterfly caterpillars, too.)

Butterflies prefer specific plants, depending on their species. Smart butterfly moms instinctively lay their eggs on “host” plants,” which they know their caterpillar offspring can use as food while they grow. Eastern black swallowtails, for example, love dill, carrot greens and parsley. Monarchs want milkweed. Buckeyes eat snapdragons and false loosestrife. And painted ladies like thistle, hollyhocks and sunflowers.

If you have these plants in your garden and you notice their being skeletonized overnight, you’ve probably got some would-be butterflies in your midst. It’s not pretty, but if you can put up with the gnawing, you can get some relief from knowing they won’t kill your plants and most species reach the chrysalis stage in about two weeks.

Once they emerge, new butterflies will no longer feed on host plants. Now they’re looking for brightly colored “nectar” plants and they’re much less choosy than their former incarnations. Some butterflies’ favorites include: aster, bee balm, butterfly bush, butterfly weed, globe thistle, goldenrod, Joe pye weed, liatris, lilac, phlox, purple coneflower, yarrow and zinnias.

So here’s where gardeners like us come in. For a lot of reasons, butterflies are short on habitats and places to land, feed and lay eggs these days. We can help them out by planting host plants for caterpillars to feed on and nectar plants for the little beauties once they become butterflies. If you use pesticides or other garden chemicals, though, just be careful to keep the spray away from plants caterpillars and butterflies will frequent.

In addition to the flowers, butterflies can always use a good place to get a drink of water. In nature, they like to rest at wet edges of puddles and sip up salts and other nutrients. You can replicate these puddles to some extent by putting out shallow dishes of wet sand. If you want to find out a lot more about butterflies and butterfly-friendly gardening than I have space for here, you’ll find a very good article on the subject at www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/DG6711.html

Just remember, you don’t have to turn your whole garden over to the butterflies to make a difference in their lives. Even a small oasis will help preserve butterfly species that are dwindling in our paved-over world. Maybe you’ll get hooked enough to want to try raising a few butterflies on your own. We had great success last year. But the year before, our first try, was really the stuff of horror movies. You can read all about that sad tale of woe at
www.slowdog.com/butterflies.

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer, living in Linden Hills. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can email it to [email protected]