Sunday, August 3, 2014

Planting for Butterflies

It’s funny how humans can plant parsley in their garden because they want to dry it as seasoning only to discover this action changes planting practices forever. This happened to my hilltop garden and me a few years ago after I tucked my first batch of breath-freshening herb into soil that was already home to lavender, chives, and oregano. I’ve continued this practice at my new address where I sowed the equivalent of a plant welcome mat for many varieties of visiting butterflies.

Once I introduced parsley to my herb bed, I noticed a big black butterfly with blue dots on funny looking wings fluttering about the new green leaves. This required photos, which I then posted on Facebook. A friend who is a veteran lepidopterist or butterfly expert soon identified my visitor as a swallowtail. I could have discovered my creature’s identity online if I’d looked, but doing it this way prompted my contact to ask if I’d also planted fennel as a butterfly attractant.

That question made me stop for a moment. I’d planted that parsley for me, not insects—even pretty ones. Her question led to my considering adding to my garden for the sake of creatures and not my taste buds. Once my friend slipped this noisy thought into my head, I visited the greenhouse to buy fennel, dill, and a butterfly bush. Colorful action in the little fenced off area increased as my thriving vegetation enticed more and more vivid visitors.

I googled Kansas Lepidoptera sites to learn that people who create butterfly havens introduce both host and nectar plantings. Hosts include dill, fennel, parsley, alfalfa, clover, hollyhocks, sunflowers, and milkweed, among others. Various trees and forbs also nurture a variety of butterfly offspring. Flowering plants provide nectar as an adult insect sipping beverage while host plants offer a nursery for egg laying and caterpillar nutrition support. Spend time online, and you’ll soon have a clear idea of which winged critters will find your yard desirable.

It didn’t take long to understand the benefit of expanding my garden. While we had scores of little white butterflies hovering over cabbages and yellow ones that liked alfalfa, we didn’t see many lovely swallowtails, painted ladies, viceroys, admirals, and monarchs. (Kansas has enough species of butterflies to keep your mind busy learning their names and attributes for months.) Once I added more herbs and other butterfly attractants, we saw even more delicate winged guests regularly.

By late summer, not only could we observe these flying works of art, but also we noted their colorful offspring in the form of caterpillars munching away at the herbs I’d planted. I hate to think of all the years viewing such treasures was a happy accident because I hadn’t intentionally attracted these creatures. Lately, I’ve added an orange milkweed and plan to introduce several pink flowered native monarch host plants next spring. My plan is to see monarch caterpillars filling up on newly added garden goodies during the annual migration a year from now.

This summer, I’ve had adult swallowtails gobbling nectar and  their caterpillars mowing down herbs. I haven’t managed to find a pupa yet, but it’ll happen. They’re bound to be hidden nearby. Perhaps I should more closely examine the plantings I’ve added so I could watch butterflies.

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