University of Illinois Extension

Butterfly Gardening

Butterfly gardening is not just a means to attract beautiful adult butterflies to the garden, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“It can be a way to provide support for all life stages and help preserve populations of these beautiful members of the insect world,” said Jennifer Schultz Nelson. “It’s tempting to think that butterfly gardening is reserved for those of us fortunate enough to have a large expanse of land. The truth is that many native species of butterflies exist in a very small home range, not much bigger than a small backyard.”

As the world becomes more developed and natural areas are more and more fragmented, having butterfly gardens in urban environments is important, as even the smallest backyard can provide for all stages of a butterfly’s life cycle.

“When planning your butterfly garden, consider the needs of all stages of the butterfly life cycle--egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupae, and adult,” she said. “Search your local library, bookstore, or you can even search the Internet for lists of plants appropriate for a butterfly garden.”

Generally speaking, the female butterfly prefers to lay her eggs on the plant that will be a food source for the larvae when they hatch. The adults prefer to eat nectar from flowers, but also benefit from a source of water. “Butterflies prefer areas with puddles of water rather than deep water,” she said. “This is easily done with a saucer filled with sand and soil and sprinkled with a dash of salt to mimic the minerals found naturally in the soil.

“Another option is to take a wine bottle that has a little indentation in the bottom and bury it upside down, using the indentation to hold water for your very own ‘butterfly bath.’ You can group bottles of different colors, sizes, and heights to create your own butterfly oasis.”

Since they are cold-blooded, they need a spot to warm themselves in the sun. The larvae need a sheltered place in which to form their pupae or chrysalis undisturbed while they undertake the amazing process of metamorphosis and emerge as a beautiful adult butterfly.

Some adult butterflies don’t migrate, but they do overwinter in fallen leaves, log piles, or other sheltered areas in the garden.

Remember when planning a butterfly garden to think twice before using insecticides. While pests may be present, many of the insecticides will harm one or more life stages of butterflies. “Many gardeners prefer to use the more ‘natural’ insecticide produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt),” she said. “This insecticide kills all kinds of caterpillars, even those that later become the butterflies you are trying to attract. You may be forced to redefine your idea of a ‘perfect’ garden.”

Many plants commonly considered weeds, like milkweed, are, in fact, essential for butterfly larvae.

You may consider allowing a corner of your yard to ‘go wild’ and let some of these plants grow to provide an oasis for growing caterpillars,” she said.

“Whether your yard is big or small, rural or urban, we can all make a little room for butterflies. It takes a little bit of planning, but it is not as impossible as it might seem.”