When you're planning your garden, consider including plants that will furnish not only shade, colorful flowers and fruits, edible plants, and cut flowers, but nourishment and habitat for butterflies. Attracting butterflies into your space allows you to observe them up close as they lay eggs on the plants you've provided. Track their life cycle as the caterpillars hatch, grow and turn into a chrysalis. It's a great opportunity to help your children or grandchildren become backyard naturalists.
Birch trees (Betula spp.) bring in two members of the brush-footed butterfly family. Compton's tortoiseshell has a brown-and-orange upper side marked with black and a gray and brown underside that looks like bark. Adults eat sap and juices from rotting fruit. One of the earliest butterflies to fly in the spring, mourning cloak lays eggs on paper birch (Betula papyrifera) and weeping willow (Salix babylonica). Purple-black upper wings are bordered with yellow, and the undersides are gray and black. Paper birch is hardy to U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 6, and weeping willow is found in USDA zones 5 through 10. Plant at least two pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba) so you can have the delicious fruit and zebra swallowtails can munch on the leaves. Pawpaws are hardy in USDA zones 5 through 8.
Bring in the dainty summer azure butterfly by introducing the white spring flowers of gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), which grows 10 to 15 feet tall and has purple-red fall foliage. Gray dogwood grows in USDA zones 4 through 8. Plant native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) to lure in the iridescent-winged spicebush swallowtail. This mostly black butterfly has a large expanse of shiny bluish-green on the hind wings of males and blue on females. Spicebush brings fall color with bright yellow leaves and red berries on female plants, growing in USDA zones 4 through 9.
Any kind of milkweed (Asclepias spp.) provides food for the white-yellow-and-black-striped caterpillars of monarch butterflies and will provide nectar for adults as well. Aim to acquire one of the native species, such as purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), which grows 2 to 3 feet tall in USDA zones 3 through 9 with showy red-purple flowers. Populations of monarch butterflies are decreasing due to habitat destruction across the U.S., and individual gardeners can help by planting milkweed. Planting violets (Viola spp.) attracts orange-and-brown fritillaries. As they rest with folded wings, notice the silver spots on the hindwings. Several species of fritillaries are native to New Jersey, and all use violet leaves as larval food.
Grow enough dill (Anethum graveolens) so you can have dillweed for cooking with lots left over for the larvae of the black swallowtail. The larvae also eat parsley (Petroselinum crispum). The caterpillars change in appearance as they grow, from spiny black-and-orange youngsters to the smooth green-and-black banded last instar. Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) attract buckeye butterflies, and American painted lady butterflies seek out bachelor buttons (Centaurea cyanus), garden balsam (Impatiens balsamina) and hollyhock (Alcea spp.).
- Butterflies and Moths of North America: Attributes of Nymphalis Vaualbum)
- Butterflies and Moths of North America: Attributes of Nymphalis Antiopa
- University of Florida IFAS Extension Fact Sheet: Betula Papyrifera
- Monrovia: Weeping Willow
- University of Florida IFAS Extension Fact Sheet: Asimina Triloba
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Cornus Racemosa
- Butterflies and Moths of North America: Attributes of Papilio Troilus
- Fine Gardening: Lindera Benzoin (Spicebush)
- MonarchWatch: Butterfly Gardening
- CBC News: Why the Monarch Butterfly Migration May Be Endangered
- Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/Photos.com/Getty Images