Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Rocky Mountains
February, 2004
Regional Report

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While monarch caterpillars only feed on milkweed leaves, the adult butterflies enjoy a variety of flowers, such as this liatris.

Bring on The Butterflies

No matter how long you've been gardening in the Rockies, there is something special about watching butterflies in the garden. These colorful, fluttery garden visitors are a welcome sight as they sip nectar from the flowers.

Encouraging butterflies to the landscape is surprisingly easy if you plan accordingly. You'll need to provide a desirable environment that gives them shelter, a variety of nectar-rich flowers for the adults, and food plants for the young caterpillars.

Designing for Butterflies
Keep the design simple. Plant in a mostly sunny location that's sheltered from the wind. The more flowers you have, the more you are likely to attract a wide variety of butterflies. Provide some moist or damp areas for the male butterflies that need sodium and other nutrients derived from the soil. A shallow puddle somewhere nearby will do the trick. During a sunny day these moist areas can attract a large number of butterflies at the same time, a phenomenon that entomologists call "puddling."

Most butterflies prefer shelter from the high winds. Wind causes them to expend a lot of energy while feeding and mating. Small trees and shrub borders can help to provide a suitable physical environment for the winged marvels.

As you design the butterfly habitat, aim for an abundance of flowers that will provide a continuous source of food. Plant a combination of annual and perennial flowers, and try to stagger the flowering season so that some flowers are in bloom all the time.

Don't forget about plant heights. For example, in our butterfly garden we've placed the taller-growing butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), in the background of the garden. This provides a windscreen as well as a nectar-rich food source. The intermediate area is the visual focal point -- the place where perennials and annuals are featured. In the very front of the garden, we plant the lower-growing annuals, such as salvias, marigolds, Peter Pan zinnias, and alyssum.

Many different plants are well suited to the Rocky Mountain region and very enticing to butterflies. Some good choices are: annual and perennial asters, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), butterfly bush, lilacs, potentillas, rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus), cosmos, daylilies, marigolds, verbenas, and zinnias.

Attracting Your Favorites
If you'd like to attract particular kinds of butterflies to your yard, following are some favorite plants of some specific butterfly species:
* Monarch: daylilies, cosmos, zinnias, rabbitbrush, and milkweed
* Two-Tailed Swallowtail: geraniums, daylilies, and thistle
* Western Tiger Swallowtail: zinnias, lilacs, butterfly bush, thistle, and milkweed
* Black Swallowtail: butterfly weed, alfalfa, and thistle
* Clouded Sulfur and Orange Sulfur: phlox, asters, marigolds, rabbitbrush, and zinnias
* Checkered Skipper: asters, verbena, dandelions, and thistle
* Painted Lady: grape hyacinth, cosmos, poppies, zinnias, and alfalfa
* Silver-Spotted Skipper: lilacs, dogbane, sweet peas, and zinnias

If you want to observe all the stages of a butterfly's life, include plants that will support the larval stages or young caterpillars. It's on these plants that the adult butterflies will lay their eggs and the emerging larvae will feed.

Most often it's the weeds that are the perfect larval food sources for butterfly caterpillars. Monarch butterflies, for example, lay their eggs on the foliage of the common milkweed because that's the only food the larvae will eat. So you'll have to compromise and allow a few weeds to grow among the flowers.

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