Butterflies in the Garden - Henry Turner
June 2003

Welcome to Chez Joann...

People wanting to attract butterflies often ask, "What's the best nectar plant?" Well, each butterfly species that nectars has its preferences, some of which aren't plants. But some native plants seem to draw more than most. Last summer I collected seeds from a beautiful, healthy Texas thistle and planted the seeds in September (you might want to begin planning your wildflower additions soon). I planted several groupings of three thistles and, if I may warn you, provide them with loamy, well-drained soil, fertilize not at all, and water infrequently, and you'll still have bloom-loaded plants six feet tall (heads shaking, eye-balls rolling, brains thinking that someone definitely has a loose screw or two). But placed out of the way in the back of a bed, they may be quite attractive even to immaculate, finicky gardeners. And nectar? THISTLES DELIVER! Swallowtails galore, monarchs, gulf fritillaries - they all love thistle nectar. But, surprise of all surprises, I digress. This month I'm writing for those of you who don't care to garden, detest dirt, certainly won't have any of those weeds in your yard, thank you very much, but yet wish that you could see an occasional butterfly there. Do I have a program for you! Welcome to Chez Joann…

Some of the neatest butterflies are among the large, diverse group called Brush-footed butterflies. They are so called because their front legs, quite short and useless for walking, are covered with longish hair-like scales. This group includes many more butterflies than we'll look at this month, but you may see some of the more interesting ones even if you lack a single flower in your yard. Most likely you'll encounter the common Hackberry Emperor, the Tawny Emperor, the Red Admiral, and the oh-so-lovely Question Mark. And you may get lucky and see an American Painted Lady, a Mourning Cloak, a Red-Spotted Purple, or a Goatweed Leafwing. While some nectar on flowers, all are gourmands of even richer fare: tree sap, animal dung, carrion, and rotting fruit. While those emulating Martha Stewart may lack such imperfections in their homes and yards, the rest of you have the makings of a veritable feast!

Let's plan our entertainment. I found a shallow, galvanized container with handles at a local feed store. It's best to hang the container rather than place it on the ground or anywhere accessible to ants (mind you, a small colony of gnats/fruit flies will gather regardless of its location). I hung ours in open shade (candle light unnecessary) from a branch of a large crepe myrtle just outside the French doors in our living room, where we could watch our guests arrive. As for the appetizer, entree, and desert, fruit that is less than fresh - bananas, pears, plums, and peaches - will draw raves of approval and cries for seconds. Also, the fruit needn't have reached the mooshed-out stage. Sometimes I'll take barely soft fruit, slit it open and use the tines of a fork to sort of puree it so that some juices are provided. You needn't constantly add fresh fruit; your guests will slurp on bananas long after they've blackened and seemingly dried up. It may take a while, but once they discover the dish, you'll have a daily gathering on all but rainy days. Remember too that you can provide a welcome repast on warm winter days, since many of these butterflies overwinter here as adults.

Now if you want to kick it up a notch, you might serve drinks with each course (echoes drift in of "Babette's Feast," a most wonderful foreign film). Your guests will love it if you add a little water to the fruit each morning or two to keep it moist. And, while not wishing to spread bad habits, let me share a suggestion Joann gave me some time ago. You'll probably need to make a special purchase so that you may add about one part inexpensive brandy or similar tasty beverage to eight parts water when you refresh the fruit. Had any parties with friends who just wouldn't go home? Well, at least you won't mind these staying. And staying. And staying. Ever seen a drunk Red Admiral? Bon Appetite!

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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