Lure beautiful insects to your
garden with flower resort

By Beth Ellis,
Victoria County Master Gardener

Edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Get ready for prime time butterfly viewing - autumn rivals spring when it comes to butterfly watching opportunities.

How often have you been working in the garden, grumbling about the heat, only to receive an instant attitude adjustment in the form of a butterfly?
Gulf fritillaries and zebra longwings are drawn to the blooms of the passionvine, which are spectacular in color. Equally as beautiful is the underside of this Gulf fritillary shown here.
Certainly nothing changes my attitude faster than the fluttering arrival of one of these skyborne flowers. My response is probably no different than that of any gardener, for it seems we are programmed to react to the lovely lure of flowers and butterflies in the same way - with instinctive enjoyment of beautiful color, delicate form and ephemeral beauty.

Whether our joy arrives in the form of earthbound blooms or airborne blossoms, flowers and butterflies have the ability to work the same kind of lovely magic in our hearts and minds.

Create a Butterfly Resort

When it comes to fine living, butterflies like the same things we do - nice amenities, cozy shelter, and most importantly, good food.

Amenities - Butterflies love sun - so place your butterfly garden where it will receive direct sunlight for several hours each day.

Add a few large rocks for basking, and butterflies will perch on the rocks to soak up the sun.

Another welcome amenity is a puddling area. Male butterflies of many species gather at damp spots to collect nutrients, and then pass them on to females during mating.

To make a puddling area, simply fill a saucer with damp sand, or regularly sprinkle water on a sandy or mud-prone spot in your flowerbed.

Shelter - Just like us, butterflies want a comfy retreat that provides protection from wind, rain and predators. Trees, bushes, wood piles and other elements with nooks and crannies all provide good hiding spots.

Food - Basically, you want your garden to have the equivalent of a huge neon "Butterflies Eat Here" sign. A haphazard collection of individual specimen plants make it hard for butterflies to identify nectar sources, so instead choose to plant in groups by species or color. Just like us, it's much easier for butterflies to find "restaurants" that are clearly marked and easy to see.

Regarding the best flowers for butterflies, the general rule of thumb is to think landing pad (i.e. perches). Those in the know consider the butterfly bush to be the absolute nectar favorite of most species, followed by butterfly weed. Zinnias, cosmos, coneflowers, yarrows, pentas, lantanas and other perchable flowers will also attract butterflies.

Don't ignore short-tubed flowers, though - butterflies who flutter while nectaring, like swallowtails, will visit salvias and similarly shaped flowers.

To get a comprehensive list of nectar plants, plenty of good books and online sources are available to consult.
(See information in boxes below.)

And of course, there are the little ones. Whether human or butterfly, it seems most kids absolutely will not eat what the grown-ups are having. It's no joke that caterpillars are more discriminating about their food than adult butterflies - caterpillars of many species simply will not survive unless they eat the right host plant. Fortunately, momma butterflies can taste with their feet so they almost always find the right place to lay eggs. And yes, you definitely do want to feed those baby butterflies (caterpillars), because if you don't, your garden is in danger of becoming just another singles bar.

Welcome the kids, make allowances for their messes, and you will end up with more adult butterflies than you can shake a flower stalk at. Give those babies what they want and just like us, some of them will grow up to have their own kids in your neighborhood . er ... garden.

Common host plants to consider include passionvine for Gulf fritillaries and Zebra longwings, fennel, dill, and parsley for swallowtails, and milkweeds for monarchs. There are many others - do your research to identify other good host plants for this area.

Oh, and to hide the mess caterpillars make when eating, hide host plants at the back of the flowerbed. Plant in groups near nectar sources so momma butterflies can find them easily. Don't worry about whether the plants will survive the munching of hungry caterpillars - they almost always do.

Dealing with Pests

Use pesticides sparingly - they will kill butterflies and caterpillars as quickly as any other insect. Integrated pest management is a good option. When using IPM, first accept a certain level of pest damage in your garden as normal. Second, use non-chemical intervention, for example, use fingers or a blast of water from the hose to remove pests. If pesticides must be employed, use as directed and cease application as soon as the problem is under control.

IPM methodology works because pests don't have time to develop a tolerance to pesticides. It also preserves beneficial insects and reduces the amount of chemicals introduced into the environment. This is one case were we don't recommend using Bacillus thuringiensis altogether - it targets caterpillars. Time any pesticide application to periods of low visitation by butterflies.

Sit Back and Enjoy

OK. At this point, all the hard work is done and your butterfly resort is up and running. Amenities and shelter are in place, the flowers are in bloom, and those host plants are just waiting for their first nibbley little customers. Now, just add a chair, a cold glass of iced tea, and a couple of field guides, and you are all set to sit back and enjoy the show.
Queen, above

Hairstreak, great purple - to left

CLICK on photos for larger view;  click on backspace to return to article.
The monarch caterpillar is drawn to its known host plant, the milkweed. It must feed on its host plant to survive, and while the plant will appear damaged, it will most likely survive as well.
Left: Crescent, vesta
Above:  Host plants to swallowtails include fennel, dill and parsley.  They can also be found fluttering on short-tubed flowers like salvias as they nectar.
"Finding Butterflies in Texas - a Guide to the Best Sites" by Roland Wauer

"Butterflies of the Lower Rio Grande Valley" by Roland Wauer

"Butterfly Gardening for the South" by Geyata Ajilvsgi.
"Complete Guide to Butterfly Gardening, Identification, and Behavior" by Donald Stokes, Lillian Stokes, and Ernest Williams

"Kaufman Guide to Butterflies of North America" by Jim P. Brock and Kenn Kaufman

"Caterpillars in the Field and Garden" by Thomas Allen, Jim P. Brock, & Jeffrey Glassberg

Online Sources

www.NABA.org - North American Butterfly Association
www.NABA.org/chapters/nabast - the South Texas chapter of NABA

Check out Ro Wauer's book - "Finding Butterflies in Texas - A Guide to the Best Sites."

According to Wauer, the Texas Rio Grande Valley is the best location in the United States for butterfly viewing.

He recently presented a Lunch and Learn training session to the Master Gardeners on this very topic.

By the way, the photos accompanying this article were all taken by Wauer at nearby Goliad State Park.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.
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