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Attracting Butterflies to Your Yard

Developing backyard habitats suitable for butterflies is becoming more popular. Not only does it provide a beautiful landscape, but it can also be an extension of butterfly photography, collecting and butterfly watching.

Image: ButterflyUnlike the collector or naturalist who seeks butterflies and caterpillars in natural habitats, the butterfly gardener attracts them into the backyard through knowledge and application of habitats, host plants, life cycles and the seasons.

Understanding the lives of numerous butterfly species will also allow gardeners to provide as many life-sustaining requirements as possible.

Some of the most important garden components are the flowers that will attract adults and the specific plants used as food by caterpillars.

Often, several species of butterflies will gorge on the blossoms of one plant species in the garden, while each of those species may require different caterpillar host plants – none of which supply nectar to adults. Although butterflies find many domesticated garden flowers suitable for sources of nectar, most caterpillars require native plants to successfully mature.

Some of the basic concepts of butterfly gardening include:

Size: Gardens can occupy a few square meters or a five-acre meadow.

Caterpillars: A complete garden includes the host plants upon which females will lay eggs and caterpillars can grow.

Local species: Learn the butterfly species in your area and provide for them.

Plant diversity: The more species of adult and larval food plants, the more species of butterflies will use the habitat. Provide trees, shrubs and herbaceous plant species.

Design: Low plants in front; shrubs and trees to the sides and rear to avoid too much shade and obstruction of the view.

Sun, water & wind: Sunny places are good for butterflies; windy ones are not. Provide a pool, puddle or wet soil. Large rocks in sunny places are used for basking.

Poisons: Avoid using pesticides or other toxic compounds anywhere near the garden.

Moths: Keep in mind that moths and other insects will use the garden, too. Check flowers at night; be on the lookout for moth caterpillars.

Nectar plants: asters, black-eyed susan, butterfly weed, dame's rocket, grass-leaved goldenrod, green-headed coneflower and honeysuckles.

Host plants for specific butterfly larvae:
Violets – fritillary butterflies
Milkweeds – monarchs
Alfalfa, white sweetclover, clovers – orange sulphur
Nettle family – red admiral
Wild cherry, choke cherry, poplars and oaks – red-spotted purple
Locust, wisterias – silver-spotted skipper
Tulip tree, wild cherry, spicebush – tiger swallowtail
Dwarf cinquefoil – grizzled skipper
Pipevine – pipevine swallowtail
Cranberry – bog copper
Flat-topped white aster – Harris checkerspot

– from Keystone Wild Notes
Wild Resource Conservation Fund

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Last modified on November 20, 2003.