A couple days ago I spotted the first Monarch butterfly of the season on a dandelion.
Of course, I didn’t have a camera near and missed a perfect photo opportunity. Indigenous butterflies are early this year, like the dandelions, due to this strange warm spring that is about six weeks premature.
Monarchs and Painted Ladies are two native butterflies that pollinate flowers, blueberries and apple trees in my region.
Yesterday, I visited the new Nicholas Conservatory in Rockford, IL, because they are releasing thousands of butterflies weekly to pollinate their flowering plants, including orchids, thumbergia and even hyacinths. Painted Ladies were everywhere, and so were the Monarchs. These delicate pollinators landed in my hair and on my hands and clothing. It was a fairy tale experience with all the vividly-colored creatures fluttering everywhere.
I snapped this photo of a Monarch at Nicholas Conservatory as Painted Ladies settled in my hair and on my sweater sleeves. It was magical!
I have butterflies in my garden, but I’ve set out to attract more. This is the time of year to start seeds and seek perennials and annuals that draw pollinators.
Plant type and color are important: Adult butterflies are attracted to red, yellow, orange, pink and purple blossoms that are flat-topped or clustered and have short flower tubes. They seek nectar to fuel their transition from egg-layer to cocoon to caterpillar to butterfly again.
A Painted Lady was attracted by the hyacinth's purplish color and short nectar tubes at Nicholas Conservatory.
These common garden plants will feed butterflies through all their life stages.
Buddleia (butterfly bush)
Butterfly weed (and other milkweeds)
Plant nectar sources in the sun. Butterflies only feed in the sun. Choose a place that receives mid-morning to mid-afternoon sun. Or plant nectar-rich flowers in the vegetable garden.
Outlaw insecticides. Ones like malathion, Sevin, and diazinon were created to kill all insects. Don't use these chemicals in or near the butterfly garden or better, anywhere on your property. Even organic ones, such as BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), are lethal to butterflies during the caterpillar stage.
My garden is pesticide-free and I let everyone know it is. That's why I have hundreds of butterflies.
Feed butterfly caterpillars. If you don't "grow" caterpillars, there will be no adults. Include caterpillar food in your garden. Doing so can greatly increase your chances of attracting unusual and uncommon butterflies. Landscape trees like ash, black cherry and willow are good choices, as are apple trees and blueberry bushes. Monarchs need milkweed, though. Most butterfly caterpillars never cause the leaf damage associated with some moth caterpillars such as bagworms, tent caterpillars or gypsy moths.
Provide a place for rest. Butterflies need sun for orientation and to warm their wings for flight. Place flat stones in your garden to supply space for butterflies to rest and soak up the sun.
Give them a place for puddling. Butterflies often gather on wet sand and mud to "puddle," drinking water and extracting minerals from damp puddles. Make a puddle with coarse sand in a shallow pan and place it in the soil of among the nectar-rich flowers. Make sure to keep the sand moist.
Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.