Invite butterflies to your garden

Raise your hand if you love butterflies.  Wow, that’s a lot of hands. 

It’s hard to resist the fluttering appeal of butterflies with their delicate wings, zig-zag flight and graceful presence in our gardens.  So, why resist?  Revel in butterflies’ visits and do more to attract them to your gardens. 

This means having flowers blooming from spring to frost.  Different butterflies emerge at different times and need fuel to fly.  

Lilies and other flowers welcome butterflies such as this great spangled fritillary.
Lilies and other flowers welcome butterflies such as this great spangled fritillary. Photo credit: Barb Hendershot, Washington County Master Gardener

Flat-topped plants with single flowers provide good landing pads for butterflies.  Think zinnias and yarrow or other plants butterflies can easily grasp.   Choose native plants such as purple coneflowers, asters and goldenrods that have evolved with native butterflies to provide maximum nutrition.  

Butterflies undergo what’s called complete metamorphosis.  That means that they are an insect that goes through four distinct life stages:  egg, larva, pupa and adult. Host plants provide both a place for adult butterflies to lay their eggs and food for the caterpillars that emerge. So adding host plants helps not one but two butterfly life stages.  

Different butterflies need different host plants.  For example, dill and parsley are host plants for black swallowtail butterflies while milkweeds host monarch butterflies.  

A black swallowtail butterfly feeds on parsley, one of its host plants.
A black swallowtail butterfly feeds on parsley, one of its host plants. Photo credit: Martha MacNeil, Washington County Master Gardener
Monarch caterpillar on milkweed
Master Gardener Martha McNeil discovers a monarch caterpillar feeding on common milkweed. Photo credit: Mo Theriault, Washington County Master Gardener

To learn about your favorite butterflies’ host plants, view this chart from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Know that when you plant host plants, they will get munched by hungry butterfly caterpillars. That’s what they’re for!  So plant extra in different parts of your garden if you also want harvests for your family.  

Butterflies get thirsty, but they have difficulty drinking from deep birdbaths.  So add a few rocks to your bird-feeder to make sipping easier.

Like beach-side sunbathers, butterflies bask.  They sun themselves to warm their wings to make them flight ready.  Set up a suitable sunning area by adding a few flat rocks to your garden.

Ever heard of puddling?  That’s what butterflies do when they sip water and nutrients from damp mud or sand.  I spied a dozen swallowtails doing this along a nearby creek recently. Magical.   Create a puddling area in your garden by keeping a small area of soil damp or by putting damp sand or soil in a shallow bowl.

Protect butterflies by avoiding chemical insecticides in your garden.  These chemicals most often can’t distinguish between insect pests and beneficial insects such as butterflies.

Welcome butterflies and other pollinators. Your garden and our community will be richer for it. 

Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County

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