By Paige Brown
In the early morning light of autumn, lissome blades of grass hang heavy with dewdrops. As the sun’s rays crest the top of the tree line, droplets of water appear as crystal, the light refracting into a million tiny rainbows. Butterflies, asleep in the grass, begin to wake to the warmth of the sun. By mid-morning, clouds of these delicate creatures drift through the garden drinking nectar and laying their eggs.
Black Swallowtail, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, skipper, fritillary, gossamer wings, and Monarch – there are over 725 species of butterfly in the United States. Their life cycle is one of Nature’s most spectacular births. From egg to caterpillar to chrysalis, finally emerging as the regal butterfly, this life cycle is dependent on specific plants and habitats. Loss of habitat is the biggest threat to butterfly populations, and any of these plants you can include in your landscape helps create a habitat that supports these ethereal creatures.
Don’t miss the opportunity to step into a fantasy where you are surrounded by thousands of butterflies. At the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, stroll through the butterfly garden, then enter the Butterfly Bungalow and immerse yourself in the tropics. Filled with tropical plants and butterflies from Central and South America, the effect is to transport you to another world. Slender yellow stripes give the zebra longwing its striking pattern, the translucent green in the windows of a stained-glass pattern make the Malachite among the most beautiful of butterflies, and the brilliant metallic blue wings of the blue morpho seem almost magical. One of the largest butterflies, the blue morpho, has a wingspan of up to eight inches. Because the Bungalow is a hot, tropical environment, you may want to go early in the day. For more information, visit http://www.ncaquariums.com.
At Airlie Gardens, a 2,700 square foot butterfly house features hundreds of our native species of butterflies and the plants that support them. Black swallowtail, gulf fritillary, and Monarch are just a few of the natives you will find flitting about on a variety of native flowering plants. The butterfly house is a shady, tranquil environment that welcomes you to slow down and meditate on the beauty that surrounds you. For more information, visit http://www.airliegardens.org.
At the New Hanover County Arboretum, seven acres of gardens provide a world of inspiration for the gardener and a buffet for butterflies and hummingbirds. Visit the herb garden, play in the children’s garden, meander past the perennial border, and take a moment to pause in the Japanese teahouse. Free to the public, the gardens are made possible by an army of dedicated volunteers, local garden clubs, and state and county governments. For more information, visit http://www.arboretum.nhcgov.com.
Create a Butterfly Garden
You can create a butterfly garden anywhere an abundance of sunshine is available, be it your backyard or an apartment patio container garden. Butterflies lay their eggs on a variety of host plants. Once the eggs hatch, the young caterpillars eat ravenously, grow as much as 100 times their original size and molt several times. Growth this rapid requires a lot of food, so be prepared to sacrifice most of the foliage and perhaps the entire plant. Tuck a few milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) plants in a perennial border or dedicated butterfly garden for the monarch. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), also for the monarch, makes a lovely edging plant for shrub borders. For the gulf fritillary, plant morning glory and passion vine on a trellis or fence. Host to the eastern black swallowtail, fennel, dill, and parsley are excellent additions to vegetable and container gardens. Place containers where you will see them often for a front row seat to an amazing transformation.
Once a butterfly emerges, it obtains all of its nutrients from flower nectar. They fly from flower to flower, tasting each one with their feet! When they find a pleasing vintage of nectar, the butterfly inserts its proboscis – a long, tubular mouthpiece much like a straw – into the flower to drink its fill.
A wide variety of flowering annuals, perennials, and shrubs provide nectar. Ageratum, cosmos, globe amaranth, marigold, sunflowers, verbena, and zinnias are a few annuals that butterflies find attractive. Lantana and penta are semi-tropical shrubs grown as annuals in the Cape Fear region. They attract butterflies in droves and have the added benefit of performing beautifully in our hot, humid weather. Hardy native perennials to try include aster, cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), coreopsis, wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), phlox, and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
And no butterfly garden would be complete without a butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), a deciduous shrub that grows up to six feet. Relatively pest free and easy to grow, this loosely growing shrub sends up cylindrical clusters of tiny flowers in a rainbow of colors. For a complete listing of butterfly friendly plants, contact your local cooperative extension service or visit the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service at ces.ncsu.edu.
Like all wildlife, butterflies need water. If you have a birdbath, place a few stones where they are just barely covered with water. You can also fill a container with sand and keep it moist.