BY KAREN FRITSCHER-PORTER
Can your family have beautiful flying insects in the backyard? Yes. You and the kids can create a charming garden in the backyard that will attract colorful butterflies. You can plant picturesque flower beds from which butterflies can treat themselves to nectar and plants that will play host to squiggly little caterpillars who feed on them—before they evolve into soaring butterflies. Even if you don’t have any space in your backyard, you can still make do with windowsill boxes and hanging planters. But first you need a little know-how:
Do Your Homework
According to the North American Butterfly Association web site, there are approximately 20,000 butterfly species worldwide. The NABA site also states that “In most parts of the United States, you can find roughly 100 species of butterflies near your home.” Different butterfly species thrive in different habitats.
Determine which butterfly species will probably flourish in your backyard by doing a little research about butterflies and plant life native to your region and its seasonal and temperature conditions. The following are some sample resources you and your children can consult. However, feel free to browse your area book stores and scan the web to develop a library of your own favorite research tools.
Learn about the International Federation of Butterfly Enthusiasts’ “3X3 Success Plan” in which they recommend you incorporate at least three plants from each described plant family—annuals/perennials, shrubs, and vines—to increase your chances of attracting many different butterfly species.
Here you can order the North American Butterfly Association’s introductory and regional butterfly gardening brochures, which explain general concepts and techniques of butterfly gardening and offer regional tips. (e.g. Flowers for the Butterfly Garden or Basics of Butterfly Gardening for Central Ohio or Southeastern Pennsylvania, etc.). Brochure rates are $2.50 to $3.00.
www.butterflywebsite.com (Choose “Articles & Info”)
At “The Butterfly Website,” you can find links to many articles by experts, which include “how to butterfly garden” pieces—some specifically geared toward kids and/or some that offer step-by-step basic instructions.
This Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center site is probably the ultimate resource for identifying butterflies in your area. You can review checklists of butterfly species by county and then view photographs and read vital statistics such as size, identifying characteristics, caterpillar hosts and adult food.
Both sites offer descriptive and purchasing information for the Peterson or National Audubon Society field guides, which cover subjects including butterflies and plants. Also learn about coloring books and multimedia items on these subjects. You can find many of these items in your local bookstores as well.
Location, Location, Location
Realtors think it’s important in choosing clients’ residence sites and business owners think it’s important to attracting customers. It’s just as important in attracting butterflies to their new home—your backyard.
“Sunny gardens protected from wind are best for butterfly gardens,” says Janet Walker who is the director of horticulture at the American Horticultural Society. “Include some shrubs or small trees. Not only do they buffet winds, they provide a place for butterflies to hide from predators at night. There must be a source of water for the butterflies to drink.” “A butterfly in the pupa stage needs an area that is protected from wind, rain, and sun, so the inclusion of some small trees and shrubs will ensure a shady nook,” adds Walker.
Tools of the Trade
You don’t need many supplies to create a butterfly garden. If you don’t already have some of the necessary foliage and flowers in your back yard, consider a trip to your local nursery where you can get starter plants or even cheaper, a pack of seeds from your local discount store’s garden department.
“Plant a wide variety of plants in order to attract lots of different species of butterflies,” says Walker. “For the best garden, plant not only flowers that the butterflies can drink nectar from, but plants that the larvae can feed on.” Larvae refers to the caterpillar stage of the butterfly, which follows the egg stage. Then comes the pupa or chrysalis stage and finally the emerging of the adult butterfly.
Once you choose the best location, perk it up with some amenities butterflies like and need. “A flat rock for butterflies to sun themselves on is also important—sunning helps them regulate body temperatures,” advises Walker. In regard to a water source, she suggests filling a conventional birdbath with flat stones that emerge from the water, allowing butterflies a safe place to perch and drink. “Or, embed a bucket in the ground, so as to create a ‘puddle.’ Again, fill with rocks for butterfly perching,” she says.
Ongoing Care and Maintenance
“Your butterfly garden should need little maintenance,” says Walker. “Butterflies love a meadow-type garden with lots of wildflowers, much like their natural habitats.” Here are Walker’s recommendations to maintain your garden:
- “Your butterfly shrubs probably need only once-yearly pruning to control their size or to remove dead wood, but don’t do it in egg-laying season.
- “Annuals may need dead-heading (removal of dead blossoms) to encourage them to rebloom.
- “Maintain the water source by keeping it full.
- “Avoid all insect sprays in the garden as the potential for inadvertently harming the butterflies is very high.
- “Beware, if you plant fruit—or berrry—bearing plants, they may attract birds, which like to eat butterflies.”
A Nature Lesson
In addition to the obvious benefits of fresh air, exercise, and family activity time, you and the kids are actually helping the environment while you learn about nature. “Butterflies are important to the environment in several ways,” Walker says. “First, they assist with plant pollination—necessary for seed production. Secondly, they are an important part of the food chain. Additionally, butterfly gardens are a good way to foster appreciation and awareness of the natural environment.”
Butterfly Activities for the Kids
A butterfly theme for your kid’s science project is one idea that sparked not only lessons, but lifelong memories, in Janet Walker’s household: “My son and I did a science fair project when he was in first grade that matched butterflies that he colored (accurately from pictures) to plants that we bought in a local nursery and then planted in the garden,” says Walker who is the director of horticulture at the American Horticultural Society. “It turned out that the science fair judge who volunteered was the author of the Golden Book on Butterflies! He called me up as a result of my son’s project and gave me a lot of advice on butterfly gardening. What a stroke of luck.
“My youngest son, Dan, now 17, still has the cutout butterflies (that he colored and put on stakes to go in the ground next to the plant that attracted the butterfly) on his desk in his room. It was absolutely the most fun science fair project I ever had to get involved in.”
In addition to creating the butterfly garden, other activities evolving around butterflies that you might interest your kids in include these:
Create a picture book. Give the kids a sketch pad and some colored pencils to draw butterflies pictured in butterfly guides. Or a pair of scissors will do if your child has a book of butterfly prints she can cut from to paste into her own creation—even a coloring book of butterflies is adequate. Label each drawing with the name of the butterfly species. Put each page in a clear sheet protector (sold at any discount or office supply store) and store them in a three ring binder. Or three hole punch each page and use small pieces of ribbon threaded through the holes to hold the whole book together.
Make a movie. Get more use out of that camcorder you’ve only been using during the holidays. Have the kids film the backyard butterfly garden—before, during and after the creation process. Let them see if they can zoom in on any of the butterflies. Don’t forget to turn the camera on your child so he can be part of the “documentary.”
Butterfly watch with binoculars. You can butterfly watch in the backyard but you also can pack your binoculars for the road. Perhaps travel to a nearby nature park or other locale where your kids research tells you butterflies will be accumulating. While they’re pointing out different butterflies, the kids might also become aware of all the other intricacies of nature they hadn’t noticed before—from the birds and the bees to the leaves and the trees. A helpful article to read before you purchase binoculars can be found on the North American Butterfly Association website at
Visit a butterfly kingdom. If you want to watch the experts attract and breed butterflies, then you and your children will want to visit a butterfly conservatory. There are many butterfly conservatories and traveling butterfly exhibits nationwide. Here are a few:
Butterfly Pavillion & Insect Center, 6252 West 104th Avenue, Westminster, CO (303/469-5441)
Butterfly World, 3600 W. Sample Road, Coconut Creek, FL (954/977-4400)
The Butterfly Place, 120 Tyngsboro Road, Westford, MA (978/392-0955)
The Butterfly Place, 2400 State Highway 165, Branson, MO (417/332-2231)
Magic Wings Butterfly House, The Museum of Life & Science, 433 Murray Avenue, Durham, NC (919/220-5429)
Tropical Butterfly House, Pacific Science Center, 200 Second Avenue North, Seattle, WA (206/443-2880)
Smithsonian Butterfly Habitat Garden, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. (202/357-2700) #
Karen Fritscher-Porter is a freelance writer based in Georgia whose articles have appeared in regional family publications nationwide.