Swallowtail butterfly on horsemint

Shown above is a swallowtail butterfly nectaring on horsemint flowers grown in Renee Hillman’s herb garden at Fruits ‘n Such Orchard in Dickinson.

WILLIAM M. JOHNSON/Courtesy

During midmorning last Saturday, I was sitting on a bench in the herb garden located within Fruits ‘n Such Orchard’s pick-your-own operation in Dickinson. Fruits ‘n Such Orchard was one of the sites featured on the Home Orchard and Garden Tour conducted last weekend.

Renee Hillman, co-owner of Fruits ‘n Such Orchard, took me on a tour of her herb garden. I was delighted to see so many butterflies visiting the array of flowers in her herb garden. There were swallowtails and Gulf fritillaries. A female monarch butterfly with faded wings landed on a butterfly weed and proceeded to deposit eggs on the leaves to start the next generation of monarchs.

Butterflies are the fluttering jewels in our landscapes. Gardeners and their children and grandchildren take delight when butterflies stop over to partake of nectar provided by flowers in their garden.

Renee happily educated the other visitors in the herb garden that they can invite butterflies to their gardens if they include flowering plants that attract butterflies.

The process is simple. The rewards are stunning.

Go ahead — imagine a garden full of beautiful flowers. Now, add the fluttering movement and brilliant color of butterflies and you have one of nature’s most enchanting combinations.

Not satisfied with the occasional, chance appearance of butterflies, many gardeners are creating butterfly gardens with plants specially chosen to invite these creatures to the landscape.

To plant a butterfly garden properly, you need to have a general understanding of the life cycle of butterflies. They pass through four distinct stages: egg, caterpillar (larvae), chrysalis (pupae) and butterfly (adult).

While they may look very different at each stage, it is important to understand that a caterpillar is not a different creature — it is simply a baby (or teenage) butterfly.

Although some of the butterfly caterpillars, such as Gulf fritillary larva, appear to be heavily armed with spines, none are able to sting. On the other hand, moths are closely related to butterflies and also have a caterpillar stage, but some moth caterpillars do sting.

Butterfly caterpillars feed voraciously on the leaves of plants. Each type of butterfly caterpillar will feed specifically only on certain plants, and the adult female butterfly will lay her eggs only on those plants that will properly nourish her offspring.

For example, Monarch butterfly caterpillars will feed only on milkweed plants (Asclepias). Gulf fritillary caterpillars prefer species of passion vines (Passiflora). The parsley worm, which grows up to be the Eastern black swallowtail, feeds on parsley, dill and fennel. Sulfur butterflies lay their eggs on cassias, and the preferred food of long-tailed skipper larvae is bean leaves (as in lima, snap and other beans grown in the vegetable garden). The orange dog caterpillar, which feeds on citrus trees and disguises itself to look like bird droppings, grows up to be the spectacular giant swallowtail butterfly.

These plants, called larval food plants, are planted into a butterfly garden with the hope that butterflies will lay eggs on them and they will be consumed by caterpillars. This is one of the few situations I can think of where a gardener actually hopes a plant will be eaten by caterpillars.

Needless to say, the use of insecticides should be limited in areas dedicated to butterfly gardens.

But remember that the caterpillars are picky about what plants they will feed on, so they generally will feed only on the larval food plants you provide for them. That means you really do not need to be concerned they will attack and damage other types of plants in your landscape.

As for adult butterflies, they feed primarily on nectar from flowers. Many commonly grown garden flowers are attractive to butterflies, and the more kinds of flowers you include in your garden the better your chances of attracting butterflies.

Don’t be disappointed if at first you don’t see butterflies flocking to your yard in droves. Remember, a butterfly garden is an invitation, not a command performance.

The more plants you put in, and the longer you stick with it, the more likely you are to see butterflies. After a while, spotting a butterfly will be more common. And the first time you find caterpillars on your milkweed, parsley or passion vine, you’ll find the excitement makes it all worthwhile.

Butterfly gardens strive to attract, welcome and nurture these fascinating and lovely insects that add so much to the pleasures of gardening. With their abundance of bright, colorful flowers, these gardens also can contribute to the beauty of the overall landscape.

Don’t forget to include your children, grandchildren or others in the process. Kids are delighted by the changing stages in a butterfly’s life cycle, and it is a great way for them to learn more about nature.

William M. Johnson

is a horticulturist with the Galveston County Office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/galveston/index.html

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