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Butterfly gardening

Letting all that milkweed grow around my yard has paid off and we have some monarch butterfly caterpillars in there chomping away! Though we don’t recall seeing any adult monarchs flitting through the garden, they must have visited long enough to deposit some eggs. We have seen plenty of tiger swallowtails and always grow extra dill for the larvae of the black swallowtails to eat.

Adult butterflies live for only a few weeks and most of that time is spent mating and laying eggs. To encourage them to carry out their whole life cycle in your yard you need to provide not only nectar plants for the adults but also host plants on which to lay their eggs and larval food for the emerging caterpillars. To attract butterflies you need to provide the basics of water, shelter, sunny open spots, and lots of flowers. 

Butterflies like an untidy, natural environment and many of the best plants for feeding larvae are wild. Milkweed, thistle, willow, stinging nettle, violets, mustard, white clover, blueberries, and wild cherry all provide food for the ravenous, newly-hatched caterpillars.

A good butterfly book is essential for identifying the butterflies in your yard and it will tell you the preferred larval food for each one. If the neighbors give you a hard time about letting thistle grow, just let them know that it is the preferred food of the beautiful painted lady butterfly’s larvae. 

The leaves of all milkweed species are the ONLY food that the caterpillars of beautiful American monarch butterflies can eat. However, because of widespread pesticide use, wild-growing milkweeds are disappearing and there has been a 90% decline in monarch populations over the last 2 decades! 

The best flowers are those made of multiple tiny blossoms such as yarrow, lilacs, phlox, buddleia, goldenrod, or Queen Anne’s lace. Also good are composite flowers like daisies, zinnias, coneflowers, and asters. Butterflies gather nectar with their tube-like proboscis, which is coiled when not in use, so flowers with a tubular shape, like bee balm, honeysuckle, or columbine also attract them.

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