Nothing brings life to your yard and garden like an abundance of colorful, carefree butterflies! Since there are over 700 species of butterflies in North America, providing any type of flowering nectar plant will probably attract one or two to stop by your yard from time to time. But if you really want to make your yard something more than a fast-food fueling spot for these beautiful creatures, you must provide both nectar plants for the adult butterflies and host plants for the larval caterpillars. Yes, caterpillars will leave holes in the plant leaves and chew certain species of host plants down to the ground. But the joy and educational experience of witnessing the entire butterfly life-cycle makes it worthwhile to buy some plants specifically for their use.
Adult female butterflies lay their eggs on larval host plants. The eggs are sometimes as small as the head of a pin, but within a few days a tiny caterpillar emerges and begins pursuing its life’s purpose-to eat!!! Caterpillars eat constantly, until they get too big for their own skin. Then, they shed their skin to make room for more food. This process is repeated numerous times until the caterpillar reaches up to 27,000 times its original size as an egg. Many caterpillars have their own defense mechanisms for repelling predators, such as stinging spines or bristles, but the survival rate of caterpillars is still as low as 2 – 3 percent from egg to butterfly.
Once fully grown, the larva seeks a safe place to pupate. This can be a branch, a twig or the eave of your house or other structure. It will attach itself with a fine strand of silk-like material and form a chrysalis. (Although many people refer to this stage as a cocoon, that term is actually reserved for moths). The chrysalis state can take anywhere from one week to one year, depending on the species of butterfly and weather conditions. This is where the transformation to a butterfly takes place. When the butterfly is ready to hatch, the process happens very quickly, so only the most observant catch a glimpse of this “birth”. However, if you have butterflies in your yard, you will often be able to witness the newly hatched butterfly as it hangs from its chrysalis drying its wings in preparation for its first flight. To be able to witness all or part of this wonderful garden miracle, you must select the right plants.
For nectar, choose plants that are brightly colored and fragrant. Large blooms provide a place for the butterfly to land while feeding. Plant a large variety of flower species and be sure to keep different blooming times in mind so that you can feed the butterflies year round. Adult butterflies prefer to feed in full sun and in an area sheltered from the wind.
For larval, or caterpillar plants, most butterflies feed on only a limited number of plant species. If you are trying to attract a specific type of butterfly, it is important that you plant the larval food for that species. Remember that if you are successful in attracting the caterpillars to your yard, your host plants will be chewed, sometimes down to the bare stems. Buy your host plants in quantities and intersperse them with your other garden plants to hide the chewed leaves and to give the caterpillars a certain amount of cover from birds, predators and inclement weather.
It is important to avoid pesticides in your yard if you want butterflies. Both the butterflies and the caterpillars can be harmed by any sort of toxic chemical.
Butterflies receive their drinking water from moist soil, so no extra water supply is needed.