I recently listened to a Field Note about the joys of designing a backyard landscape for wildlife and birds. As you’re scheming and poring over seed catalogs, consider the smaller winged creatures in your plans. Butterflies not only bring their own delight to a garden, but butterfly gardens have real conservation value. A garden that’s free of pesticides and full of nectar sources and food plants can become habitat for dozens of brightly-colored flitting jewels.
As the early spring sunshine streams in my windows, I imagine the Kentucky Bluegrass desert of my yard transformed. In my mind’s eye I see sulphurs and painted ladies flitting over asters, silvery blues among purple coneflowers, and Milbert’s tortoiseshells sipping at a clump of native elk thistle. (I don’t know about you, but half my pleasure is in the names!)
Your butterfly garden needs two basics: nectar to entice butterflies to your garden, and the right food plants for their caterpillar offspring to consume. Generally, flowers that have an open form and petals broad enough for perching are good butterfly nectar sources. Asters, purple coneflowers, showy milkweed, lupine, penstemon, and blazing star are all Montana native flowers which offer a banquet to butterflies. Many non-native garden flowers attract as well, such as marigolds, zinnias, cosmos, daylilies, bee balm, and sweet peas. Swallowtails are especially fond of the heady ambrosia of lilacs found in so many Montana gardens, and dandelions will far outstrip any rose to the butterfly’s nose—or proboscis, rather.
Butterfly larvae often depend on the foliage of particular host plants for food. If you have a wet spot in your yard, milkweed is known as the host for monarch butterflies. Western tiger swallowtails and mourning cloaks prefer willows, aspens, and cottonwoods, and pearly crescentspots have a taste for asters. The eggs of common blues and silvery blues are inevitably laid on lupines, and pearly everlasting and pussytoes delight the painted ladies.
To add a few other enticements to the banquet you spread, include flagstones for basking, and a spot of wet sand or other water source. Remember that butterflies love warmth, sunny spots, and shelter from the wind. And don’t get rid of that brushpile in the back corner of your hard: it makes excellent shelter for resting and hibernating butterflies.
If you’d like to learn more about butterflies and butterfly gardening, visit the Xerces Society website at xerces.org.
"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.