Butterflies and moths are pretty, interesting, and can be a colorful addition to your yard (moths too, but they’re generally active at night). In Novi, we start with the advantage of still having large and small areas of open space spread across the city that offer habitat for a wide variety of them, so there are many around that you can probably attract to your yard with a butterfly garden, big or small. And, with butterfly gardens, if you build them, they will come, but you need to have the right elements.
First, you need to know the basics of butterflies and moths. Adult butterflies feed on nectar, which is available in a huge number of plants. Some plants have more nectar, or more tasty nectar, but there isn’t too much specialization when it comes to where a butterfly will get nectar – many, many different flowers will do. But, as you know, flowers, especially perennials, don’t bloom all summer, so you need to have a variety of flowers with different bloom periods so there is food from spring to fall.
Second, butterfly and moth larvae, commonly known as caterpillars, don’t feed on nectar. They feed on the actual plant – leaves, flowers and sometimes even stems. But, in order to keep from always being eaten to death, most plants have developed defenses against being eaten. Sometimes they’re things like thorns, or hairs, but very often the defenses are within the plants themselves – they develop chemicals over time that make the plant distasteful or toxic. In turn, some butterflies have developed enzymes or other methods to make the chemicals ineffective, so they can eat them, but still not eat other plants. An example of this is the monarch butterfly, whose caterpillars can feed on milkweed all day, which most caterpillars can’t do because it produces compounds that are toxic to most other caterpillars. So, if you want to grow monarch butterflies from caterpillars, you have to have milkweed in your garden, but the good news is that any milkweed will do (but swamp milkweed and common milkweed are the best around here).
If you just want to attract adult butterflies, you just need a lot of pretty nectar plants, but if you want to support the entire cycle, you’ll need a mix of nectar and host plants, which are basically caterpillar food. Deciding what you want to do is a fun adventure. It’s a game of researching butterflies and plants. So, let’s get started. For starters, think about butterflies you like. If you need some help and don’t know much about butterflies to start, here is a site to visit to help you figure out what butterflies you like:
Butterflies of Michigan https://www.inaturalist.org/guides/13917
Next, you want to figure out what your favorite butterflies like as host plants (the plants that the caterpillars eat) or for nectar (the places where adults go for food). Here are a couple of good sources of information:
Host plants: https://tinyurl.com/sp8tfjpp
Nectar plants (remember, adults aren’t as picky as caterpillars): https://tinyurl.com/254eh9zd
With these tools, you can start putting together lists (make them short at first) of the butterflies you want to attract, and how you’re going to feed them. Next time we’ll talk about putting your garden together.