Connect with the environment and family while inviting some of Mother Nature’s most majestic creatures into your own garden.
Among the most beloved—and beautiful—insects you might encounter in your own backyard, numerous species of butterfly can be found fluttering about central Illinois on a sunny spring or summer day. With a little strategic landscaping, anyone can transform a simple garden into a lush oasis, inviting hoards of these charming creatures to bring some color and joy into their lives.
Suitable for beginners and experts alike, butterfly gardening is not only a great way to attract wildlife and spruce up your landscape, it also provides invaluable resources to the mini-ecosystems that thrive on even the smallest plots of land. It’s something more and more gardeners are taking note of when selecting their plants, says Kelly Allsup, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.
“Gardeners are becoming more intrinsic in their gardening. They’re not just going, ‘What’s a beautiful flower for me?’ but, ‘What can I plant for the butterflies and the bees?’” she explains. “[They’re] wanting to make their environment better… and insects are very important to environmental quality.”
As urban development has increased, so has the loss of natural habitat and use of pesticides—which has already had dire consequences on the insect world, says Allsup, and could ultimately devastate one of Earth’s keystone species. However, with inspiration from the book Bringing Home Nature by Doug Tallamy, she notes that, “One person can make a difference… One butterfly garden can make difference.”
After discovering a local interest in the topic, Allsup, along with her colleague Bunny Randall, a Woodford County master gardener, developed a program through the University of Illinois Extension Office to teach area residents how they can make a difference while attracting butterflies to their gardens.
A Five-Star Spread
Getting started is actually pretty easy, requiring just a little bit of advanced planning. “The things you look at when you’re building a great restaurant are very similar to the things you look at when you’re putting in a great butterfly garden,” Randall explains. And what does every five-star restaurant take into account? Location, amenities, the customer, and of course, the menu.
When determining where to establish a butterfly garden, choose a location shielded from strong winds and abundant with sunshine. Horticulturalists recommend a wall, fence or even a line of evergreens to protect butterflies from powerful gusts and help them conserve their energy. As cold-blooded creatures, butterflies fly best when their body temperature is between 85 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to maintain that temperature, they enjoy basking in the sun atop plants, rocks and logs—all important items to incorporate into a butterfly garden.
For instance, a great resting place would be a dark-colored boulder, as it will absorb the sun’s heat in the morning and provide warmth throughout the day. Furthermore, providing a garden sheltered from the elements and predators will encourage butterfly larvae to form their chrysalis—the butterfly’s pupa stage—there, allowing an up-close look at their metamorphosis, and meaning more winged beauties in your garden when they do finally emerge.
Another important factor to consider, Randall says, is a source of water. Stones with little dips allow small amounts of water to pool, offering a great place for butterflies to stop for some “liquid refreshment.” If you have an artistic streak, consider utilizing recycled items that serve the same purpose—one of Allsup and Randall’s colleagues buries leftover wine bottles upside down in her garden to create colorful butterfly baths. Another option Randall suggests is to create a mud puddle—a combination of sand, soil, salt and water. As butterflies prefer shallow puddles, burying a pie pan or small bird bath filled with this nutrient-rich mixture will attract them to rest and recoup in your garden.
But the most critical step in planning your butterfly garden is to find out what types of butterflies are common to your area and what they—and their larvae, or caterpillars—like to eat. While adult butterflies have some plant preferences depending on their species—monarchs, for example, enjoy munching on milkweed and butterfly weed, while tiger swallowtails delight in Mexican sunflowers and petunias—nearly all enjoy the nectar of brightly colored flowers. However, what’s more essential is catering to the butterflies’ larvae, which have considerably pickier tastes. Butterfly gardeners need to ensure they incorporate enough nectar plants, which attract and feed the adults, as well as the correct type and amount of larval plants, on which butterflies will lay their eggs and their larvae will feast on upon hatching.
Central Illinois is home to a variety of species of butterfly, all of whose larvae have particular appetites. Some of the most common include: black swallowtail (parsley, dill, carrots), buckeye (snapdragons), monarch (milkweeds, butterfly weed), red potted purple (willows, poplars), tiger swallowtail (wild cherry, birch, poplar, ash, apple and tulip trees), and viceroy (pussy willow, plums, cherries).
While you may be tempted to spray your garden to keep pests away from your butterflies’ food, Allsup stresses to not use any pesticides on your plants, as caterpillars and butterflies are extremely vulnerable to them. You may have to redefine your idea of a “perfect” garden and allow your plot to grow wild—and healthy.
Home on the Prairie
On May 16th, Wildlife Prairie Park will open its new Kim St. John Butterfly Habitat, featuring a wide variety of butterfly species native to Illinois—including monarchs, viceroys, skippers, swallowtails and more. In addition to purchasing several starter caterpillars and chrysalises, volunteers hope to incorporate a number of butterflies currently living in the park into the habitat.
For the past several months, area master gardeners and naturalists have been busy constructing the conservatory and planting indigenous nectar and larval food sources. Once completed, the habitat will double as both an insectarium and classroom where visitors can learn about the butterfly’s lifecycle and see its development firsthand. “It fits very nicely with the mission of Wildlife Prairie Park, in terms of introducing people to nature,” says Lee Maki, a Tazewell County master gardener and master naturalist intern. “This is a good education opportunity for the public and schoolchildren.” Maki is confident the hands-on learning center will quench the curiosity of children and adults alike.
For more information, call (309) 676-0998 or visit wildlifeprairiestatepark.org.
Fun for All Spaces and Ages
If you can’t devote an entire garden to these fluttering friends, there are several other alternatives to attract butterflies to your yard. “We recognize that not everyone has a big landscape,” Randall says. “But you can attract butterflies just in containers.” One easy option she recommends is incorporating all of the ingredients of a “five-star” butterfly garden into individual planters. These miniature butterfly gardens allow for the flexibility to choose a container size that can sit on a windowsill, table or anywhere you have room. She notes that many butterflies enjoy overripe fruit and compost, and there are a number of commercial butterfly feeders available as well.
Additionally, Randall says a fun and economical way to involve children in butterfly gardening is to create your own feeder at home. One idea from U of I Extension horticulture educator Jennifer Schultz Nelson is to make your own homemade nectar supplement. Mix one-third of a cup of sugar with one cup of water, and use colorful kitchen sponges—cut into shapes of flowers, butterflies or whatever designs you prefer—to soak up the solution, then set them out in a dish for butterflies to enjoy. Just be sure to clean out your sponges every few days to prevent mold growth.
Call of the Wild
While crafting a feeder is one fun activity to enjoy with your kids, Allsup says engaging children in all aspects of your butterfly garden is an excellent way to coax them to shut down the computer or videogame, and get out of the house. “A great way for us to connect to children is to use insects,” she explains. “As a child, I used to go out in the woods and play. I used to look at insects. I used to look at plants. I don’t think people have that anymore. I don’t think they have that connection to nature that most of us had when we were children.”
“Gardening has a way, I think, of connecting people and families,” Randall adds. “It’s certainly a wonderful way, from an education perspective, to bring children into the loop on the importance of preserving nature, insects and beauty… It’s a lifelong pastime or enjoyment for many people.”
Whether you were born with a green thumb or not, these two passionate naturalists believe butterfly gardening is an easy and enchanting way for anyone to strengthen their bond with both loved ones and nature. a&s
For more information on butterfly gardening, plus numerous other horticultural topics, visit web.extension.illinois.edu.