In terms of dramatic transformations, I’ve never understood why the ugly duckling gets all the press. Sure, he didn’t look like the rest of the cute little ducklings, but at least he was still fuzzy, and kind of cute in his own way. And at the end of the day, even after his ‘transformation’ he was still pretty much a big white goose. But butterflies are a much different story; starting out as caterpillars,few living creatures experience a metamorphosis as phenomenal as theirs.
Pretend you’re the first human being on the earth. One day you spot a little caterpillar munching on a leaf. You watch it closely, which is pretty entertaining since you don’t have netflicks. It grows and changes every day, until one day you can’t find it. Instead, you see what looks like a tiny, enameled Tiffany box hanging by a cottony thread. You really want to pry it open, (because what self-respecting cro-magnon can resist a Tiffany box?) but before you can find your Chantilly letter opener, it pops open all by itself. And out comes a beautiful butterfly! It would be impossible to even find a connection between the caterpillar and the butterfly–much less figure out they were one in the same.
Butterflies play a critical role in a balanced ecosystem. Like bees, they are prolific pollinators. And aside from their obvious beauty, many species are truly beneficial insects in the garden. For example, the caterpillars of “Harvester” butterflies (feniseca tarquinius
) exist on woolly aphids alone, making them the only carnivorous species of butterfly in North America.
Attracting butterflies to your yard and garden is easy. Just keep in mind they are somewhat nearsighted, so planting masses of bright colors will be a big help in bringing them around. Plants like Bee Balm, Butterfly Bush, Lavender, Penta and Lantana are all butterfly magnets, plus they provide food in the form of nectar. Any flowering plant with a tubular shaped bloom is likely to be a good nectar source for butterflies. Bonus: hummingbirds like a lot of the same plants!
It’s also a great idea to incorporate host plants in your garden. Host plants are basically an incubator, nursery and cafeteria all in one. Once a female locates the right plant, (by tasting the leaves with her feet!) she lays her eggs on it, so that when they hatch, they’re surrounded by their own individual food source. Excellent host plants are; Milkweed for Monarchs, citrus for Giant Swallowtails, parsley and fennel for Eastern Black Swallowtails, passion vine (or may-pop) for Gulf Fritillaries and Zebra Longwings.
From left: Zebra Longwing, Giant Swallowtail, Gulf Fritillary, Monarch, Eastern Black Swallowtail
Sadly, some of our most beloved butterflies, monarchs in particular, have declined over the last several years. The entire diet of Monarch larvae (who are apparentlyvery picky eaters) is made up of one thing; Milkweed. And due to increased pesticide use, in addition to climate issues like hurricanes and droughts, milkweed just isn’t as prevalent as it once was. Naturally, we can’t control the weather, but all of us can probably cut down our use of chemical pesticides. You’d be amazed at how effective a squirt bottle of soapy water (I like Murphy’s Oil Soap because it’s super sticky and a true, non-detergent soap) can be in ridding your plants of all kinds of unwanted pests.
Another simple way to protect and increase our Monarch population? Plant more milkweed! Luckily, it’s easy to find, even easier to grow, and its fiery blooms are a beautiful addition to any garden. In fact, all the host plants would be welcome additions to your outdoor spaces. Remember, butterflies are a gift to the garden and the gardener. Plus, some even come in a Tiffany box!