Butterflies in the Garden - Henry Turner
November 2002

Confessions of a butterfly watcher, or if you plant it, they WILL come...

As someone noted, the beauty of a wildflower brings us incredible joy, but let a butterfly suddenly fly into the picture and pause to sip some nectar and that joy takes on a whole new dimension. Understandably, gardening in order to attract butterflies to your yard or meadow has become increasingly popular, and while nurseries will eagerly recommend that you buy a butterfly bush (a wonderful plant), they sometimes forget that butterflies have evolved by dining at nature's table and laying their eggs on selected plants, many toxic, with which they've formed a special relationship. Witness the monarch's annual northward flight in search of young, tender milkweed shoots for its larvae. Thankfully, many local nurseries have begun carrying native plants propagated by responsible methods and a number of wildflower growers make seeds easily available for us to try.

Of course you can lure some butterflies to an area with a just few alien species like butterfly bush and hybrid lantana. But with native nectar and host plants available, you can greatly increase the amount of butterfly activity in your yards. Butterflies will not only come to dine, they and their offspring will stay a while when their largely native host plants and native nectar plants are available. Just a few larvae on these host plants add a new ingredient to your day: you'll find yourself suddenly running out into the yard or meadow to see how they're growing, to ensure a parasite hasn't killed them, and perhaps to catch them wandering off to pupate (make sure you have plenty of time to watch a black swallowtail larva find its spot to pupate; I've seen them crawl twenty feet to the street, cross it, and climb onto a neighbor's shrub or tree). And few of us can forget our pleasure the first time we saw a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis or pupa.

So when you buy your next native plants, you might want to consider some of the host plants discussed below. With the increasing destruction and fragmentation of native habitat, we have a responsibility to help replace the diminishing plant life that our pollinators depend on. I've been gardening to attract butterflies for only three years with more females and new species laying eggs each year. It's not a bad feeling when realizing that just maybe you've helped increase the monarch population each year. Remember, in nature for every 100 eggs a female butterfly lays, only about two survive predation, storms, and other challenges to become adults. The improved circumstances you can provide may greatly increase these odds. And it's not a cliché, butterflies do like the convenience of masses of their favorite flowers (and as much variety with blooms during all seasons as you can provide), and they can more easily find the host plants to lay their eggs on if you plant in groups of three or more plants of each type of plant.

Books to read:

Here are the most useful guides I know of to help you plan and develop your own butterfly garden or meadow or to learn more about our butterflies. Remember that both the Tarrant County Butterfly Society (see "More Info") and the Dallas County Lepidopterists' Society (see link below) meet monthly and often have field trips in which you are quite welcome to participate.

Butterfly Gardening for the South by Geyata Ajilvsgi. 1990. Taylor Publishing Company.
This remains one of the most useful resources for anyone wishing to begin gardening to attract butterflies. It has a heavy emphasis on Texas, and differentiates among the butterflies commonly found in each part of the state and discusses most of the useful native plants for each area. It also includes a chapter on photographing butterflies.

Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John and Gloria Tveten. 1996. University of Texas Press.
O.K This has nothing to do with the Cross Timbers, you say. Well, that's so except that the photographs and the lengthy discussion of each species make this book a gem. What's more, there are some super photos of many of those larvae you see and wish that you could identify! (Photos of butterfly larvae are hard to find. Another decent collection can be found in Donald and Lillian Stokes' The Butterfly Book, pp. 34-5. See also the Dallas County web site listed below.)

Butterflies through Binoculars: The West by Jeffrey Glassberg. 2001. Oxford University Press.
If you want one handbook to carry in the field, get this book. Good photos and careful description of each species with precise notes as to the differences between similar species. Also contains maps showing areas in which each species is commonly found as well as indication of the number of broods usually in that area. He also indicates the general habitat of species and common larval plants used.

Four Wings and a Prayer by Sue Halpern. 2001. Random House.
A thoroughly documented account of the monarch migration -- a history of the various theories about it, all cast within the narrative of a personal journey. A very good read.

Native Texas Plants by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowski. 1997. Gulf Publishing Company.
Buried within this superb discussion of native plants are suggested plants for attracting butterflies ("Wildlife Garden Plan", pp.116-121). Discussion of individual plants will often mention their relative value to butterfly gardening (e.g., "Wafer ash is an important tree for butterfly gardeners.")

Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife by Noreen Dalmude and Kelly Conrad Bender. 1999. Texas Parks and Wildlife Press.
A focused discussion of gardening for butterflies (pp. 93 ff.), followed by a good list of not only the host plants but also the nectar plants preferred by some of the more common butterflies in Texas.

Sites to visit: -- excellent site of Dale Clark, local lepidopterist. -- have a question about monarchs? -- answers to a trillion questions about monarchs. Most important, each spring they compile an updated map based on current sightings so that you can follow the migration of the monarchs north. They also map the journey south. -- the North American Butterfly Association; much info. -- some practical help on butterflies and gardening to attract them. -- garden guidelines by Charlene Rowell of Heard Museum and Tina Dombrowski of Texas Discovery Gardens. -- list of some useful host and nectar plants.

For more information, you may contact:

Tarrant County Butterfly Society (817) 923-8474

Joann Karges or (817) 923-8474

Henry Turner or (817) 922-9484

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