Gardening With Children


For our regular STEM Friday feature we recommend two books about trees for children, just in time for Arbor Day, next Friday April 24, 2015. (Read the rest of the reviews and see a video book trailer at Wrapped in Foil blog.) Then we'll finish out Butterfly Gardening With Children Week with a discussion of trees for butterfly gardens.

The first book, Branching Out: How Trees Are Part of Our World by Joan Marie Galat and illustrated by Wendy Ding (2014), describes a particular species of tree, how it used by humans, and what animals depend on that kind of tree in a series of four-page spreads. The 11 species of trees highlighted range from red maples and downy birches to pau brasil and cork oaks.

The second book, Celebritrees: Historic and Famous Trees of the World by Margi Preus and illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (2011), consists of a series of two-page spreads telling the stories of 14 famous, tall and exceptionally-old trees from around the world, the back matter gives more information about the trees and a number of suggestions about what the reader can do to help and encourage trees.

Appropriate for butterfly gardening week:  In the section about oak trees in the back matter of this book, we find out that a single large oak tree can support up to 34 species of butterflies!

That fact reminds us that although growing pretty flowers helps the adult butterflies, to have a truly productive butterfly garden you need to supply food for caterpillars as well.

Many beautiful species of butterflies require trees as larval hosts.


1. Hackberry trees (Celtis species) are larval food for

  • Tawny emperor butterflies
  • Hackberry emperor butterflies
  • Mourning cloak butterflies
  • Question Mark butterflies
  • Snout butterfly

mystery-butterfly-2-identicationThe snout butterfly

Hackberry_Emperor,_Megan_McCarty46Hackberry emperor butterfly (Public domain photograph by Megan McCarty)

(Seed of the Week post about Canyon Hackberry)

2. Live oaks are larval food for California sister butterfly larvae.

California-sister-butterflyCalifornia sister butterfly, Ramsey Canyon, Arizona

Some duskywings and hairstreaks also use oaks for food.

3. Black cherry (Prunus serotina) trees are larval food for:

  • Red-spotted purple
  • Eastern tiger swallowtail
  • Coral hairstreak

4. Citrus trees (orange, lemon grapefruit) attract numerous giant swallowtails. Their larvae are called orange dog caterpillars.

caterpillar-orange-dogAn orange dog caterpillar on a grapefruit leaf

In addition to larval food, trees provide shelter for butterflies (and a multitude of other animals), provide safe places for the caterpillars to pupate, and some flowering trees supply nectar for many more adult butterflies.

In his book, Bringing Nature Home, entomologist  Doug Tallamy gives a list of how many species of butterflies and moths are supported by 21 kinds of trees. The numbers are astonishing! He says oak trees (genus Quercus) provide food for some 534 different species of butterflies and moths. Given that those butterflies are important pollinators and parts of the food web, that is an enormous contribution.


If you are going to plant a tree for Arbor Day or any other event, consider choosing a local species that will host butterflies. You will get yet another benefit from a tree. Please leave a comment if you have any questions about how to choose a suitable butterfly host tree for your area.



 This is the final post for Butterfly Gardening with Children Week. Hope you enjoyed it. If you missed the previous posts from the week, check our links page for topics we covered.


Interested in reading more great books about trees for Arbor Day? Try our giant, redwood-sized list of children's books about trees at Science Books for Kids.



Disclosures: The books above were from my local library. Also, I am an affiliate for Amazon. If you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.

Come visit the STEM Friday blog each week to find more great Science, Technology, Engineering and Math books.


Bees get all the buzz whenever someone brings up pollination, but butterflies deserve some credit, too. In fact, there are some flowers that are pollinated specifically by butterflies.


What is pollination? Remember visiting flower parts a few weeks ago? Let's look at the generalized diagram again:

Mature_flower_diagram.svg (“Mature flower diagram” by Mariana Ruiz LadyofHats. Public Domain image at Wikimedia Commons.)

Pollination is simply the movement of the pollen made in the anthers (pollen shown as orange balls in this diagram on the right) to the top of the female part of the flower, called the stigma. Sometimes the physical distance between the two seems quite small, but many, many plants need the assistance of animal pollinators to achieve pollination.

red-bird-of-paradise-228Take the red bird of paradise flowers. The long, red threadlike structures are the anthers on very long filaments.


What pollinates such an odd flower? It turns out that when swallowtail butterflies drink the nectar of these flowers, they get pollen all over their wings. When they drink at another red bird of paradise flower, they pollinate it.

Other flowers pollinated by butterflies include phlox, many of the flat-topped flower heads in the daisy family (asters, zinnias, etc.), and the milkweeds.

Butterflies are attracted to flowers so they can feed on nectar.

queen-butterfly-339-feedingButterflies use their proboscis (mouthparts) rather like a straw when they drink nectar. Can you see this queen butterfly's proboscis probing the milkweed flower?

Pollination-Related Activities

1. Nectar Cups for Young Children

Let young children pretend they are butterflies and make nectar cups for them to drink from.


  • Plastic or paper cups with tops that have opening for straws
  • Straws
  • Construction paper or posterboard
  • Flower shape stencils (optional)
  • Pencils
  • Scissors
  • Juice or other drink to serve as nectar

1. Have the children cut flower shapes from the construction paper. For very young children, adults may need to help draw the flower shapes using stencils and to help cutting out thicker posterboard.

2. Use a sharpened pencil to poke a hole in the center of the flower large enough to accommodate the straw.

3. Fill the cup with the drink ("nectar"). Cap the cup and then put the straw through the paper flower center and into the cap of the cup. Allow the flower to rest on the cap, so the children can drink the "nectar" from the "flower."

2. Investigate Pollination in the Butterfly Garden

Surprisingly little is known about butterflies and pollination. Older children may want to investigate butterfly pollination in their butterfly gardens.

Go out to the garden at the same time every day for at least once a day and count how many butterflies you see on a few different types of flowers over a given amount of time, say 15 minutes. Record the species you see with a camera. Graph your results and figure out which species of butterflies prefer which types of flowers.

(You might want to see a similar study for bees for ideas).


Be sure to check our growing list of links to information about butterfly gardening with children.

The butterfly is a flying flower,
The flower a tethered butterfly.
~Ponce Denis Écouchard Lebrun


Butterflies are colorful, interesting insects. Many children find them fascinating. In fact, butterflies have become so popular that over the last few decades, butterfly houses and pavilions have sprung up all over. Children are more likely to have experienced butterflies close up than ever before. You may wonder whether you even need to plant your own butterfly garden when a trip to see butterflies is only a car ride away.

Although butterfly exhibits are educational and fun to explore, some children will be inspired to learn more about butterflies after visiting. Here are a few good reasons to consider butterfly gardening with children:

Butterfly-Gardening- Infographic2(By the way, this comparison is not intended to be negative about butterfly exhibits, but only to encourage exploration beyond their limits.)

Tips for Starting Your Own Butterfly Garden

What do butterflies need to survive? Food, water and shelter are all important. Let's find out how to provide butterflies with the necessities.

1. Adult Butterfly Nectar Plants

An easy way to get started with butterfly gardening is to provide some flowering plants to provide nectar for adult butterflies. These plants may be in your yard or even in pots on your patio.

Choosing plants can be a bit daunting at first. Try taking a walk around some local gardens and note which plants butterflies are visiting. Check with local butterfly societies and plant nurseries for suggestions, as well. Ideally you want to have a range of plants that bloom over the entire growing season.

Native versus non-native plants

When you are just starting out, you may just want to try planting some old favorites, like zinnias or cosmos. Butterfly experts recommend, however, that you also include some native or local plants. For example, given a choice between:

real-butterfly-weed-dcThe butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) which is native to eastern North America, or...


the the exotic tropical or blood milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, the butterfly milkweed is a safer bet. If you are an experienced butterfly gardener, you might want to check this .pdf article about the recent controversy about the tropical milkweed and the monarch butterfly.

Some butterfly favorite plants are:

  • milkweeds (monarchs, queens)
  • lantana
  • butterfly bush
  • ageratum (attracts male queen butterflies)
  • dill, fennel or parsley (swallowtails)
  • hollyhocks (painted lady)
  • passion flower (fritillaries)

2. Caterpillar host plants

If you are interested in raising butterflies and seeing the life stages, then it is important to provide the plants that caterpillars use for food. Caterpillars often have specific and limited feeding preferences. Look for information about your local butterflies and their hosts at websites like Butterflies and Moths of North America (click on the "regional checklists" tab).

black-swallowtail-larva-Papilio polyxenes-22

Dill and fennel are eaten by certain swallowtail caterpillars. Butterfly gardeners always plant some extra for the butterflies.

3. Water

Even though many butterflies drink nectar, some also drink water or obtain nutrients from wet spots in the garden. Providing a damp bare spot or patch of moist sand is likely to be enough.


4. Shelter

Butterflies need places to stow away at night, and to shelter from wind and rain during the day. Providing leafy shrubs and trees, plus not being excessively tidy are great ways to ensure butterflies have safe places to hide.

This video from University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension has some good ideas.

Other suggestions:

No two butterfly gardens will be alike. They will vary according to region, size and the individual taste of the gardeners. Make butterfly gardening a family project and don't be afraid to let your creativity run wild.

Consider recording your observations via a nature journal, photographs and sound recordings. You might even want to keep a blog or share on Instagram or Flickr to inspire other butterfly gardeners. The possibilities are endless!

Do you have a butterfly garden? Have you gardened with children? What tips would you share? Have you encountered any problems? What suggestions do you have to avoid them?

Be sure to check our Butterfly Gardening With Children links page for more activities throughout the week.