Gardening to attract butterflies

June 13, 1997

EDITORS: Graphic shown in this story is available.

ANN ARBOR—Whether you just get a kick out of the butterflies that happen into your garden or want to attract more of these creatures of summer to your area, the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens has some suggestions on how to successfully enjoy these gossamer-winged beauties.

“Butterflies are most active on balmy days,” says David Michener, Assistant Curator at the Gardens. “When winds are high, they prefer protected places. Butterflies are in search of food and mates. That food can be nectar as well as protein-rich fluids from animal wastes. Look for both sources to increase your success in viewing butterflies.”

Female butterflies of many species are particular about where they lay their eggs, says Michener. Some will lay the eggs on one of just a few species of plants which are the best food for the caterpillars. “Finding the ‘host’ plants will help you locate the adult female butterflies,” says Michener.

Michener and the Gardens’ staff suggest the following to create a butterfly-friendly garden:

—Choose plants that provide food for the caterpillars as well as those flowers that are good nectar sources for the adults.

—Adult butterflies will find it easier to locate larger groups of plants if they are planted in groups rather than follow a polka-dot design.

—Place the caterpillar-food plants where you won’t mind damaged foliage. Use masses of the same plant, and tuck it away from the main viewing area.

—Provide sun, shade, water and protection from the wind. Different areas of the garden can be used for these diverse needs.

—Pesticides kill butterflies and caterpillars, so don’t poison your garden against one kind of insect because you will also kill or damage others.

Some shrubs and perennials that have proven to be favorites with butterflies include the Butterfly Bush, Lilacs, and Blueberries. Asters, Bee Balm, Coreopsis, Phlox, Sedum, Yarrow and Purple Coneflowers are also popular. Among the annuals that attract butterflies are Cosmos, Marigolds, Nasturtiums, Petunias, Sunflowers, Verbena and Zinnias. Michener says different species of Swallowtail butterflies are partial to members of the Carrot family such as Carrots, Dill and Parsley, as well as Sassafras, Spicebush, Wild Cherry and Pawpaws. The Sulphers like members of the Pea family such as White Clover, Alfalfa and Vetches while the Coppers and Hairstreaks have a hankering for Wild Cherries and White Oaks. The Brushfooted Butterflies, which includes the Monarch and Red Admiral, will visit Violets, the everlastings of the Aster family, Nettles and Blackberry. Staff at the Gardens recommend visiting the Matthaei Botanical Gardens’ Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden, and Nature Trails now through September to enjoy butterflies and caterpillars. The Gateway Garden of New World Plants will host caterpillars and butterflies from July through September, and the Perennial and Rose Garden will be a sure bet for viewing butterflies in July and August. For more information about the Gardens or butterflies, contact Matthaei Botanical Gardens at (313) 998-7061.