Gardening How To’s – Attracting Butterflies

warner-07-10The king of the butterflies needs your help.

Our population of Danaus plexippus, better known as the monarch butterfly, has suffered in recent years.

Once their highly recognizable wings of orange, black and white were plentiful, drifting over our gardens and in our parks for most of the spring and summer. The monarch comes to Northern Arizona to feed on milkweed and nectar flowers and lay their eggs prior to joining the great migration in the fall. But habitat loss, herbicides and extreme weather have made monarch sightings rarer throughout the United States.

We’ve talked in this space before about the declining numbers of honey bees, but other pollinators like butterflies have also shown significant decreases over the last several years.

This is important not only because we love seeing the beautiful insects, but because much of our plant and food production is due to pollinators. It is estimated that one out of every three mouthfuls of food you eat requires the pollination efforts of birds, bees and butterflies to grow.

Butterflies are less efficient pollinators than bees because of their body structure, but are still important to the ecosystem. They probe for nectar and favor flat, clustered flowers that provide a landing pad (also important because they “taste” with their feet!) Also, unlike bees, butterflies can see red and therefore are drawn to bright colors like red, yellow and orange.

Here’s the good news – you personally can be part of the nationwide movement to help monarch butterflies (and other pollinators) by creating your own butterfly garden.

The cornerstone of the monarch’s diet is milkweed, but butterflies are also partial to many other flowering plants, particularly when they are breeding. Zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers and asters are popular for monarchs cruising the garden. Butterfly bushes not only attract monarchs; they are popular with hummingbirds as well.

The trick is not only attracting the butterflies to your backyard, but helping them reproduce by offering plants that are also good food sources for caterpillars. Part of this depends on what Northern Arizona “microclimate” your garden is in. Our friendly staff at Warner’s can help you pick the species that will work for your garden, attract adult monarchs and also feed the next generation of butterflies.

Once you pick your plants there are some additional things to consider.

Planting a wide range of nectar and host plants is the best strategy for attracting the largest number of butterfly species. Butterflies may be attracted to the garden by a large patch of bright flowers, but they will linger longer if there are also areas that provide shelter, water, sun and a diverse group of plants that imitate the way plants grow in the wild.

Plant diversity in the garden results from choosing plants of different types, such as shrubs, trees, perennials, and even vines. In choosing plants that grow to different heights, with a variety of flower shapes and colors that have different bloom times, you will be creating a garden that is attractive to a wide range of butterflies. Grouping more than one plant of each type together will help to unify the look of the garden and will lessen the distance that nectaring butterflies have to travel.

If your garden is small and has no room for trees or shrubs, consider an arbor covered with vines to create height. There are many vines to choose from that act as nectar or caterpillar food plants.

While shrubs and trees can create unnecessary shade, they do provide an important feature in the butterfly garden. Properly placed, trees and shrubs will shelter your garden from wind, which makes it easier for butterflies to explore your location. Additionally, trees and shrubs give valuable shelter where butterflies can roost at night or hide from predators.

Your butterflies also need some water – not much (a few puddles or moist dirt will do).

Puddling stations can be as simple as a damp area of ground covered with sand. Place where they are easily viewed and sheltered from the wind.

Lastly, sun is essential for the butterfly garden. Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that often start their day by warming their bodies in the sun. Be sure to include a spot in the garden where sunlight will reach the ground early in the day. Large rocks, exposed soil, or even pavement are all surfaces that will allow butterflies a place to warm up.

Warner’s locally grown native plant selection as well as all the other quality plants from our nursery, provide multiple food sources for monarchs and many other pollinators. They will also keep your yard looking lovely too!