Butterflies aren’t just beautiful — they’re out there working hard, pollinating as they flit from flower to flower.
In fact, butterflies are the second-largest group of pollinators, after bees.
Unfortunately, like many other pollinators, butterfly numbers are decreasing around the world because of factors including loss of native habitat, replacement of native food plants with non-native species, use of pesticides, climate change and the proliferation of parasites and diseases.
Urban development and other land uses that result in clear-cutting trees and eliminating native plants is a big concern of Jodi Hopper, who has a butterfly farm in North Beaver Township, Lawrence County.
“If people don’t start becoming aware of this, some of these butterflies are going to be wiped out,” she said. “You’re not going to change urban development, because as population grows, it is going to spread — but even with it, you can still plant a little butterfly garden in your yard.”
With planting season now upon us, this might be the year to plant your own pollinator-friendly haven. So, let’s get started.
Make a plan
A little planning goes a long way to ensure success, said Elizabeth Pesci of Greensburg. Pesci is a Penn State Master Gardener, the garden horticulturist for Greensburg Garden Center and a former garden center manager and landscape designer.
“If somebody wants to make a butterfly garden, they need a place with a lot of sun. Butterflies like sun — you never see them flying on a really overcast day,” Pesci said. “You want as much sunshine as you can get, but if you can only get a half a day and you want a butterfly garden, go for it.”
In garden terms, full sun is six or more hours of sunlight per day, according to Juliette Olshock, sustainable landcare program coordinator for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh. Part sun is four to six hours and shade is less than six hours.
“Many of our pollinator plants prefer full sun, but some will bloom in the shade,” Olshock said.
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A sign in Greensburg Garden Center’s Lefevre Butterfly Garden at the Greensburg Garden & Civic Center.
Pesci recommends deciding how much time you have to devote to this garden, which will influence its size and your choice of plants. If your time is limited, keep it small — even a few square feet of colorful flora will attract pollinators.
If you already have a prepared garden space, you’re ahead of the game. If not, it’s time to prepare your plot.
“If you have grass, you’re going to need to remove it. That’s a bit of a job,” Pesci said.
Once all grass and weeds are removed, the soil may need to be improved. Penn State Extension provides soil testing that will tell what, if any, nutrients are needed for the types of plants you want to grow.
“In Western Pennsylvania, our ground is highly clay. It varies from place to place, but it’s highly clay,” Pesci said. “I would recommend adding something organic, such as compost, to give your plants a better opportunity to grow well.”
On the other hand, Olshock said, “Native butterflies are attracted to native plants, which grow well in our native soils. Look for plants native to Southwestern Pennsylvania to get the best match to your soil, and you should not need to amend your soil at all.”
Matching plants to sunlight and soil conditions is the key to success, she said.
Make it pretty
And don’t forget the aesthetics.
“As a designer, I want to think about how it will look to me and my family and to the public. If it’s out in front, you want people going by to say, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice,’ ” Pesci said. “Maybe you have a color scheme in mind. That will determine some of your choices.”
When making those choices, remember that butterflies and caterpillars have different needs. If possible, you will want to include plants that provide food for the entire life cycle.
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Purple coneflowers in the Greensburg Garden Center’s Lefevre Butterfly Garden.
“Adult butterflies are looking for plants that provide nectar, while caterpillars are looking for tasty leaves to eat,” Olshock said. “These are often found on different plants; so it is important to look for both plants that feed caterpillars (these are called host plants) and plants that feed butterflies.”
• Trees: willow, pawpaw, river birch, Eastern redbud, dogwood, Eastern red cedar, oak
• Shrubs: spice bush, sumac, viburnum
• Herbaceous perennials: swamp milkweed, pussy toes, asters, turtlehead, penstemon
Nectar sources for butterflies include perennial species such as asters, coneflower, beeblossom, oxeye, catmint, evening primrose, phlox, violets and black-eyed Susan.
“Wild blue indigo, dense blazing star and New England asters are wonderful perennial plants for butterflies as they all provide nectar for adult butterflies in spring, summer and fall, respectively,” Olshock said. “These perennials are also butterfly host plants to various caterpillars. Spice bush is a shade-tolerant and deer-resistant shrub that hosts Eastern tiger swallowtail and spicebush swallowtail caterpillars.”
Deer aren’t fond of herbs, either, but butterflies are.
“Many herbs have wonderful nectar, and the nice thing about herbs is that deer don’t like many of them — like fennel, dill, parsley and Queen Anne’s lace,” Pesci said.
Caterpillars will feed on milkweed before making their transformations into butterflies.
While most butterfly favorites are perennials, she added, “There are some good annuals, like lantana or anything that blooms heavily and has a scent.”
Pesci and Olshock both say that, contrary to popular perception, butterfly bush is not recommended.
“Although they provide a quick energy source for adult butterflies, they can spread into our forests, where they become invasive (birds spread the seeds), and they do not support growing caterpillars,” Olshock said. “A great alternative is summersweet, a small shrub that provides a profusion of blooms for hungry butterfly adults and tasty leaves for caterpillars.”
For more help, a list of “Top 10 Sustainable Plants” is available at phipps.conservatory.org. The plants are selected for their noninvasive habits and resistance to disease and insects. Once established, they require minimal watering and fertilization.
Another thing is to equip your garden with is a tiny, butterfly-sized beach.
“You can create a butterfly-sized watering hole by taking a plant saucer (painted terra cotta saucers work well) and cover about half of it with sand and add medium-sized rocks, then add a shallow layer of water,” Olshock said. “This makeshift puddle will provide needed water and areas for butterflies t
Hopper also is in favor of letting nature take its own course, to some extent, in providing for butterflies.
“I don’t think many people realize that, when they’re keeping these pristine yards or getting rid of certain plants, they are getting rid of host plants that butterflies need to survive,” she said. “I used to think that I didn’t want the stinging nettle on my farm, but then I found out that it’s a host plant for the admirals and the question marks and, hey, I’ve got stinging nettle everywhere now.
“There are so many plants that they need,” she said. “So when you’re trying to have a perfect yard or the perfect flower bed, and you’re getting rid of some of these weeds, you aren’t giving the right environment to these butterflies.”
To delve deeper into butterflies, Pesci suggests “Butterflies of Pennsylvania: A Field Guide,” by James L. Monroe and David M. Wright, published in 2017 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
The book lists all species recorded to the publication date within Pennsylvania and includes color photographs of the upper and under sides of male and female specimens of each species, and information on distinguishing marks, traits, wingspan, habitat and larval host plants. County-by-county maps show where each species has been recorded, and graphs detail when they are present and most likely to be seen.