Ornamental plants are not only beautiful, but they serve a purpose, too.
Butterflies depend on plants for food for the larvae and adults. My twins and I saw an Eastern Tiger butterfly about a week ago. Planting a diversity of flowers, shrubs and trees provides food for butterflies while attracting them to our landscape, porch, or patio with beautiful flowers.
When selecting plants, remember they are very near-sighted, so group large stands of one type of flower together. In addition, cluster flowers with bright, contrasting colors. Large, single, upright blooms provide a landing area that makes extracting nectar easier.
Butterflies acquire all of their food through a mouthpart shaped as a long, coiled tube. Forcing blood into the tube straightens it out, allowing butterflies to feed on liquids. This type of mouth part limits them to nectar from flowers and standing water.
Also, butterflies have a well-developed sense of smell from their antennae. All butterflies’ antennae are club shaped, as compared to moths which can be many shapes but are often feathery.
Butterflies need specific plants in order to reproduce. Adult female butterflies search for specific species of plants on which to lay their eggs, attaching their eggs to the leaves or stems of a plant. After the larva, which looks like a tiny caterpillar, emerges from the egg, it begins to eat the plant.
As the caterpillar grows, it must crawl out of the skin or molt because the skin does not grow or stretch along with the expanding caterpillar. After molting, a new and larger skin or exoskeleton replaces the old one. Caterpillars may molt four to five times before changing into a pupa, which is also called a chrysalis.
While in the chrysalis, which looks like a sack, the caterpillar’s structure is broken down and a butterfly is formed. Finally, the adult butterfly emerges, spreads its wings and flies away.
Butterfly larvae can be very noticeable. Watch out for the hairs or forked spines, which may or may not sting, on some caterpillars. Certain swallowtail caterpillars imitate snakes or bird droppings. Other caterpillars, like sulphers, are camouflaged and blend into their surroundings very well.
Butterfly caterpillars can eat excessive amounts of foliage on a plant. You can physically move them to another, less noticeable portion of the plant. Protect your hands by wearing gloves. Do not use insecticides on these plants because the butterflies and caterpillars will be killed. If there is an insect pest problem, remove the pest by hand.
A diversity of plants in the garden helps to attract different types of butterflies. Annual plants used by butterfly larvae for food include: snapdragon (Antirrhinum spp.), dill (Anethum graveolens), sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus), and parsley (Petroselinum crispum). Full sun is the best location for these plants.
Perennials that attract butterflies for larval food are: butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and violet (Viola spp.). Butterfly weed and fennel prefer full sun.
Trees which the butterfly larvae use for food include: willow (Salix spp.), wild cherry (Prunus spp.), birch (Betula spp.), and tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). One medium-sized shrub that butterfly larvae use for food is spicebush (Lindera benzoin). These trees and shrub grow best in full sun. The spicebush will grow in partial shade.
Flowering annual plants which grow in the sun and attract butterflies because of their nectar include: marigold (Tagetes spp.), zinnia (Zinnia elegans), gloriosa daisy (Rudbeckia hirta), nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), lantana (Lantana), sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus), cosmos (Cosmos spp.), sunflower (Helianthus), and sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima). Impatiens (Impatiens wallerana) is an annual that grows in the shade.
Flowering perennial plants for attracting butterflies include: purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), phlox (Phlox spp.), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), daylily (Hemerocallis spp.), aster (Aster spp.), blanket flower (Gaillardia spp.), coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.), chrysanthemum (Dendranthema x grandiflora, formerly Chrysanthemum), dahlia (Dahlia spp.), hollyhock (Alcea spp.), showy sedum (Sedum spectabile), hibiscus (Hibiscus spp.), yarrow (Achillea spp.), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and thyme (Thymus spp.). These flowering plants prefer to grow in full sun.
Medium-sized shrubs for attracting butterflies include lilac (Syringa spp.), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and azalea (Rhododendron spp.). Azaleas prefer to grow in light shade. Lilac and butterfly bush grow best in full sun.
For more information about plants that attract butterflies and for photos of butterflies common to Kentucky, visit http://www.uky.edu/hort/Butterflies at the University of Kentucky website, or contact the Daviess County Cooperative Extension Service at 270-685-8480 or Annette.Heisdorffer@uky.edu.
Upcoming EventThe Kentucky Cooperative Extension Agents for Horticulture and Agriculture and Natural Resources Education started Horticulture Webinar Wednesdays to provide science-based information through technology. Access the webinars through https://uky.zoom.us/j/566301042 at 1:00 p.m. The topic for April 22 is “Start Composting at Home.”
Annette’s TipsThe Extension Master Gardener Hotline is open to answer your gardening questions. This hotline was developed to answer the many questions received during the gardening season with the help of trained volunteers. Please email email@example.com with your questions, or call 270-685-8480 and leave a message.
Fall is the best time to fertilize trees and shrubs, not in the spring. The roots will not be able to supply water to the new growth that is produced by fertilizing them at this time. By fertilizing trees and shrubs in the fall, root growth occurs, which will support and sustain new twig and leaf growth in the spring.
Azaleas and rhododendrons are exceptions to the above tip. They should be fertilized right after they bloom in the spring.
Annette Meyer Heisdorffer is the Daviess County extension agent for horticulture. Her column runs weekly on the Home & Garden page in Lifestyle. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.