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:
(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:
The 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)
- 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).
Dill and fennel are eaten by certain swallowtail caterpillars. Butterfly gardeners always plant some extra for the butterflies.
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.
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.
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.