What is more whimsical and carefree than a butterfly flitting about the garden? Everybody wants to attract them, but many gardeners only know half the story: growing plants that provide nectar for them to sip on. If you want butterflies not just to visit, but also to stay and multiply, you also need to grow the plants they lay their eggs on to raise their young.
Whereas butterflies are quite opportunistic about taking nectar from any plant they can, they are far more picky when it comes to raising their young. Each butterfly has a different plant family that it requires - and in some cases, one specific plant in that family. If you see a particular butterfly flitting about your garden, research what "food" or "larval" plant it requires and plant that as well.
Butterfly caterpillars have a tough time in the wild, with many predators; they're lucky if one in ten grows up to be a butterfly. We'll be adding to this section in the coming months with lots of tips on rearing caterpillars, but here's how you can get started to increase their odds:
* Stop using poisons on your plants, especially near any nectar or food plants. If you bring a food plant home from a nursery, give it very thorough spraying with the hose, as they may have been using poisons themselves.
* Collect the eggs as soon as you can and move them to a safe place to grow. We have several food plants in pots to make them easier to move into our greenhouse or a “caterpillar condo” (more on that later) away from predators such as birds, wasps, and even beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings. If we see a butterfly laying eggs, we will quite often follow behind her and snatch the leaves she laid the eggs on, pinning the leaves onto clean plants in a protected place. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars crawl off onto their new host plant.
* If you missed the eggs, caterpillars at virtually any stage of development can also be moved on the safe plants mentioned above. Move the entire leaf or a small cutting; don't pick off the caterpillar itself.
* Once the caterpillars are ready to crawl off and make a chrysalis, they are at their most vulnerable - so give them a protected place to do so. We have built our own “caterpillar condo” out of wood covered with window screen. This keeps out parasitic wasps and flies.
What can one homeowner do? Last year (2003) we raised and released over 500 Monarchs, plus donated around 200 eggs and caterpillars to individuals and schools. On an average year, we released about 100 monarchs. Imagine what we could do if even one home in every neighborhood created a true habitat for butterflies?