Butterfly populations have declined rapidly in recent years, due in part to lack of habitat for their young. We all love to watch beautiful, multicolored butterflies flit from flower to flower in our garden, but we hate to see the eaten leaves and partially stripped stems due to feeding caterpillars. But you can't have butterflies without caterpillars! And since many butterflies live only a few days to a few weeks, providing a home and food for their young is essential to their life cycle. Fortunately, many of the plants preferred by caterpillars are not the same which are fed upon for butterfly nectar, so it is easy to grow both in your garden.
Butterflies will lay from 200 to 500 eggs in groups of three or four to up to several dozen, usually on the undersides of the leaves of caterpillar host plants. Some butterflies use only one specific host plant for their eggs and young, so if you wish to attract a specific type of butterfly do some research into its preferences. A butterfly egg will hatch about five days after being deposited and the young caterpillar will first eat the eggshell. The caterpillar will then feed upon the surrounding greenery until it grows large enough to start the metamorphosis into a butterfly. The caterpillar will shed its skin four to six times during the growth cycle, allowing it to grow larger. Finally, after a few weeks, the caterpillar will attach itself to a leaf or branch and convert into a pupa. The pupa will morph into a butterfly and emerge after several weeks.
Where a caterpillar eats leaves and stems voraciously with tough chewing mandibles, the butterfly instead drinks liquid nectar from flowers, and juice from rotting fruit, with a long proboscis. Nectar-producing flowers are what attracts butterflies, and there are many beautiful ones which do very well in containers.
Be sure to provide a variety flowers which will bloom all summer long, and plant caterpillar host plants in succession to ensure fresh greens for the hungry caterpillars. Adding a bowl of muddy water or nectar solution or some juicy sliced fruit will also be much appreciated by the butterflies visiting your garden. Be sure to avoid the use of insecticides - use ladybugs, praying mantis and lacewings to control unwanted pests, instead.
Here is a list of plants and flowers to grow in your garden to create a beautiful butterfly sanctuary:
CATERPILLAR HOST PLANTS
Anethum graveolens – Dill
Helianthus - Sunflower
Queen Anne's Lace
BUTTERFLY FOOD FLOWERS
Achillea - Yarrow
Aquilegia - Columbine
Echinacea purpurea – Cone Flower
Echinops – Globe Thistle
Eupatorium – Joe Pye Weed
Gaillardia grandiflora - Blanket Flower
Iberis - Candytuft
Lathyrus ororatus - Sweet Pea
Monarda – Bee Balm
Rudbeckia – Gloriosa Daisy, Black-eyed Susan
Salvia – Sage
Tagetes – Marigold
Zauschneria – California Fuchsia
FOOD PLANTS FOR BOTH CATERPILLARS AND BUTTERFLIES
Alcea rosea - Hollyhock
Antirrhinum – Snapdragon
Asclepias – Butterfly Milkweed, Common Milkweed, and Swamp Milkweed