Butterfly gardens provide a haven for hard-working pollinators

Butterflies are not only beautiful – they work hard and pollinate as they move from flower to flower.

In fact, butterflies are the second largest group of pollinators after bees.

Unfortunately, like many other pollinators, butterflies are declining worldwide due to factors including loss of original habitat, replacement of native food plants with non-native species, use of pesticides, climate change, and the spread of parasites and diseases.

Urban development and other land uses that lead to felling trees and removing native vegetation is a major concern for Judy Hooper, who has a butterfly farm in North Beaver Township, Lawrence County.

Her work, Wish Upon a Butterfly, provides the flutter for educational programs, shows, and releases for various events throughout western Pennsylvania.

“If people don’t start to realize this, some of these butterflies will be wiped out,” she said. “Urban development is not going to change, because as the population grows, it will spread – but even then, you can still grow a small butterfly garden in your yard.”

With the planting season now approaching, this could be the year you plant a pollinator-friendly haven. So let’s get started.

make a plan

Elizabeth Pesci of Greensburg said a little planning goes a long way to ensure success. Pesci is a Pennsylvania master gardener, gardener at Greensburg Garden Center and former director of the Garden Center and landscape designer.

“If someone wants to make a butterfly garden, they need a place with lots of sun. Butterflies are like the sun — you won’t see them fly on a really cloudy day,” Pesci said. “You want as much sun as you can get, but If you can only have half a day and want a butterfly garden, go for it.”

In terms of gardens, full sun is six or more hours of sunlight per day, according to Juliet Olchuk, sustainable land care program coordinator at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh. The sun part is four to six hours and the shade is less than six hours.

“Many pollinator plants prefer full sun, but some flower in shade,” Olchuk said.

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A sign in the Lefevre Butterfly Garden at the Greensburg Garden Center at the Greensburg Garden & Civic Center.

Pesci recommends deciding how much time you should devote to this garden, which will affect its size and your choice of plants. If your time is limited, keep it small—even a few square feet of colorful plants will attract pollinators.

If you already have an equipped garden space, you are ahead of the game. If not, then it’s time to prepare your plot.

“If you have weed, you will need to remove it. That is kind of a business,” Pesci said.

Once all weeds and weeds are removed, the soil may need to be improved. The Penn State Extension provides a soil test that will determine what nutrients, if any, are needed for the types of plants you want to grow.

“In western Pennsylvania, our land is highly clay. It varies from place to place, but it is very clayey,” Pesci said. “I recommend adding something organic, like compost, to give your plants a better chance of growing well.”

On the other hand, Olchuk said, “Native butterflies are attracted to native plants, which grow well in our native soils. Look for plants native to southwestern Pennsylvania for the best soil match, and you won’t need a soil amendment at all.”

Matching the plants to sunlight and soil conditions is key to success, she said.

make it beautiful

And don’t forget the aesthetics.

“As a designer, I want to think about what it would look like for me, my family, and the audience. If it’s up front, you want people to say, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute,'” Pesci said. “Maybe you have a color scheme in mind. That will determine some of your choices.”

When making these choices, remember that butterflies and caterpillars have different needs. If possible, you’ll want to include plants that provide food throughout the life cycle.


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Purple conifers in Levere Butterfly Garden at Greensburg Garden Center.

“Adult butterflies look for plants that provide nectar, while caterpillars look for tasty leaves to eat,” Olchuk said. “These are often found in different plants, so it is important to research both plants that feed the caterpillars (these are called host plants) and plants that feed the butterflies.”

Here are some suggested caterpillar host plants from the United States Botanic Garden:

• Trees: willow, papaya, river birch, oriental redbud, dogwood, oriental red cedar, oak

Shrubs: oregano, sumac, viburnum

• Herbaceous perennials: swamp grass, pussy fingers, asters, tortoiseshell, Penstemon

Sources of nectar for butterflies include perennial species such as asters, coneflower, beeblossom, oxeye, mint, evening primrose, phlox, violets, and black-eyed Susans.

“The wild blue indigo, dense glowing star and New England aster plants are wonderful perennials for butterflies because they all provide nectar for adult butterflies in spring, summer, and fall, respectively,” Olchuk said. “These perennials are also host plants for butterflies for various caterpillars. The spice shrub is a shade-tolerant, deer-resistant shrub that hosts caterpillars of the eastern tiger swallowtail and the spice shrub.”

Deer aren’t fond of weeds either, but butterflies are.

“Many herbs contain wonderful nectar, and the nice thing about herbs is that deer don’t like much of it—fennel, dill, parsley, and Queen Anne’s lace,” Pesci said.


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The larvae will feed on milkweed before turning them into butterflies.

While most favorite butterflies are perennials, she added, “There are some good annuals, like lantana or anything that blooms heavily and has a scent.”

Pesci and Olshock say that, contrary to popular perception, butterfly bush is not recommended.

“Although they provide a quick source of energy for adult butterflies, they can spread into our forests, where they become invasive (birds spread seeds), and do not support larval development,” Olchuk said. “A great alternative is sweet summer, a small shrub that provides an abundance of flowers for hungry adults of butterflies and delicious leaves for caterpillars.”

More resources

For further assistance, a list of the “Top 10 Sustainable Plants” is available at phipps.conservatory.org. The plants are selected for their non-invasive habits and resistance to disease and insects. Once established, they require minimal watering and fertilizing.

Another thing is to equip your garden with a small beach the size of a butterfly.

“You can create a butterfly-sized watering hole by taking a vegetable bowl (painted terra-cotta dishes work well) and covering about half of it with sand and adding medium-sized rocks, then adding a shallow layer of water,” Olchuk said. “This temporary pond will provide the necessary water and habitat for the butterflies

Hopper is also in favor of letting nature take its own course, to some extent, in providing butterflies.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize that when they keep these pristine yards or shed some plants, they’re getting rid of the host plants that butterflies need to survive,” she said. “I used to think I didn’t want stinging nettle on my farm, but then I found out it’s a host plant for admirals and question marks, and hey, I have stinging nettles everywhere now.

“There are a lot of plants that they need,” she said. “So when you’re trying to get the perfect yard or the perfect flower bed, and you get rid of some of these weeds, you’re not providing the right environment for these butterflies.”

To dig deeper into butterflies, Pesci suggests the book “Pennsylvania’s Butterflies: A Field Guide” by James L. Munro and David M. Wright, published in 2017 by University of Pittsburgh Press.

The book lists all species recorded to date of publication within Pennsylvania and includes color photographs of the upper and lower sides of male and female specimens of each species, and information on distinctive signs, traits, wing span, habitat, and larval host plants. Individual county maps show where each species has been registered, and graphic details of when they are present and most likely to be seen.

Shirley McMarlin is a writer for the Tribune Review. You can contact Shirley at 5750-836-724, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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