Butterflies Among the Herbs

Lure these jewel-like creatures to the garden with herbs that nourish and protect.

| April/May 2003

  • Photography by Rick Wetherbee

  • A garden of flowering herbs is sure to attract butterflies to feast and play.

  • Swallowtails, brushfoots, sulphurs and painted ladies flit about yarrow blooms in spring and summer.

Of all nature’s wonders, butterflies grace the garden like no other. The same herbs that delight and satisfy our senses also bring butterflies to our gardens.

More than 750 butterfly species live in the United States and Canada, and some reside in your area. But you won’t see butterflies in a barren yard. Like most wildlife, butterflies need food, shelter and a place to lay their eggs and feed their offspring. Herbs can become their nectar-rich food source. Many herbs also serve as host plants on which butterflies lay their eggs, providing edibles once the eggs hatch into caterpillars, eventually to emerge as the beautiful winged adult we admire.

Planning a butterfly garden

A large garden offers an enormous diversity of colorful, nectar-rich flowers and host plants to lure butterflies, but you can provide a pesticide-free food source, shelter and a place for butterflies to lay their eggs in a relatively small space. However, even the best of garden designs can go awry if you don’t know which butterfly species reside in your area. For example, passionflowers (Passiflora spp.) are a favored host plant of the gulf fritillary. The hardy maypop passionflower (P. incarnata), a native of the eastern United States, can even survive temperatures as low as -10 degrees. Just don’t expect the gulf fritillary to come calling unless you live in the Southeast or western part of the country.

Many resources are available to help you learn about local butterfly species, including your cooperative extension agent, regional guidebooks or butterfly Internet sources including the NPWRC web site (www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/bflyusa.htm). With myriad herbs to choose from, knowing the butterfly species common to your area will help in selecting which herbs to grow—especially important where space is limited.

A garden featuring various nectar-producing host and shelter plants arranged at varying heights will draw a larger variety of butterflies than single-story plants of the same size. For example, taller bushes and vines such as the glossy abelia (Abelia ¥grandiflora), viburnum (Viburnum spp.) and honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) might serve as a backdrop for the shorter gay feather (Liatris spp.), borage (Borago officinalis) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Or you might plant a graduated pyramid: tall, willowy butterfly bushes (Buddleja davidii) in the middle, surrounded by nicotianas, black-eyed Susans and pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), and bordered by yarrow with shorter varieties of asters and catmint (Nepeta cataria). Fill the fringes with low-growing thymes, violas and sedums.

Herbs with tubular-shaped flowers like thorn apple (Datura spp.) and foxglove (Digitalis spp.) are attractive to humans, but not to butterflies. The length of a butterfly’s tongue determines the type of flower it can dine on. Moths, which usually have longer tongues than butterflies, can draw nectar from long, slender flowers. Butterflies are stuck with the shorter lunches.

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