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A walk in the woods: Starting a butterfly garden

By Melody Bell Wilkes
For the Salisbury Post
Butterflies can decorate any garden as they search for nectar to drink or a place to lay their eggs. If you ever wondered about starting your own butterfly garden, now is a good time to plan and plant for a season full of entertainment and fun.
There are four stages to a butterfly’s life cycle: egg, larva (caterpillar stage), pupa (chrysalis stage) and adult. All of the stages are important in establishing your butterfly garden. Successful butterfly gardens require two components: caterpillar host plants to feed the larva and nectar plants to feed the adults.
When selecting a site to plant your butterfly garden, make sure you choose sunny open areas that are protected from wind. To keep your butterfly garden visited by butterflies all season long, use a variety of butterfly attracting plants that will bloom at different times throughout the spring, summer and fall. Butterflies, like other wildlife, are vulnerable to chemicals in the garden. Remember not to use pesticides.
Each type of butterfly has certain food preferences. Start by finding out the native butterflies in your area and learn to identify them. The type of flowering plants you grow will determine the type of butterflies that will be attracted to your yard. For best results, plant a variety of perennials and annuals that are clustered in groups and are staggered in height with taller plants in the rear and lower growing plants in the front.
Once the plants are established and they start to bloom, watch the butterflies as they land on the flowers. A butterfly knows in an instant if the flower is good for sipping nectar. Butterflies use their antennae for their main sense of smell. They also have olfactory hairs and olfactory pits and pegs at the wing bases, labial palpi by the proboscis (the straw-like structure to sip nectar) and the top of their legs. Taste sensors are on the end of their legs. Legs that come in contact with dissolved sugar on the flowers signals the butterflies to lower their proboscis and drink.
Butterflies gain their nutrition through nectar but they also need water too. They can’t drink from open water. In your garden, consider providing a large shallow saucer made of damp sand or mud. Make sure to water it occasionally to keep it moist.
Butterflies are cold blooded and need to warm their body temperature, especially in the mornings. Offering basking stones or boards in your garden at a sunny location will help butterflies warm themselves. Adults fly during warm, sunny days. They are inactive during cloudy or cold weather.
Each type of butterfly will lay its eggs on certain plants. Find out which type of butterfly you want to attract and plant the nectar plant and the caterpillar host plant. When female butterflies find the appropriate host plant, they will land on a leaf and curl their abdomen under it to deposit a small egg. Several eggs are laid on many leaves, up to 100. Upon hatching, the caterpillar will start looking for food to eat. It doesn’t have to search far since the female butterfly laid the egg on the plant the caterpillar is supposed to eat. Plant several host plants since caterpillars will consume a lot within a short period of time. Leave areas to grow unattended with weeds so that the caterpillars have a place to suspend their chrysalis. In the late fall when plants are looking tired and shabby, minimize any clean-up since pupa will overwinter in the garden.
Among butterfly attracting plants are annuals such as impatiens, petunias, marigolds and snapdragons
Perennials include purple coneflower, violet, black-eyed Susan, milkweed and aster.
Natural caterpillar host plants include milkweed, thistle, clover and black cherry.
If you are on a budget and had to choose one plant to attract a number of butterflies, I would recommend the butterfly bush, Buddleia species. Its summer blossoms are prolific until frost and it is a butterfly magnet, hence its name.
Melody Wilkes is owner of A Walk in the Woods, an environmental education company that provides outreach wildlife programs. Contact her at 704-436-9048 or visit www.awalkinthewoods.us.

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