butterfly gardens in new orleans

by Frances Welden

 If you are looking for ways to make your garden more interesting and colorful consider attracting butterflies to their favorite plants.  Winston Churchill had the gardener of Chartwell leave some “noxious weeds” that were known to be the larval food-plant for some lovely butterflies.  Roger Tory Peterson’s wife planted a garden solely for the butterflies and lured them up the road past his study.  Any small bit that you do of this sort will give you hours of pleasure besides contributing to the survival of our native butterflies.

There are a number of books and magazine articles that you may find helpful when you start your “butterfly garden”.  But for a beginning, here is a condensation which picks out those facts that deal with our unique situation in New Orleans and which draws upon the experience of several butterfly enthusiasts who live in the area.

A.  The first order of business is to provide flowers for as many months of the year as you can manage.  Any time the temperature reaches the mid-sixties ( F) with a hint of sunshine there will be butterflies on the wing in search of nectar.  I have seen Monarchs flying through the streets of New Orleans during the Christmas holidays.  By the middle of February there are lots of Sulfurs needing nourishment.  These may pass yard unnoticed unless a flower signals a meal.  Consult your flower guides for tips and check around neglected fences and vacant lots to see what native wild flowers are in bloom.  Transplanting wild flowers from undisturbed habitats is tricky at best, and some natives may not grow in your yard at all.  Consult a nursery for similar plants or horticultural varieties that have been tested locally.  Gathering seeds from the wild does not cost you anything and experimenting with them is a fun project in itself.

Benign neglect of some portion of your yard will probably produce violets, dandelions, oxalis, spiderwort, etc.  While these may be “weeds” to you, they can be “meals” for butterflies.

As Spring progresses your choice of nectar producing plants increases, and your garden will have more visitors.  What you plant is best governed by the amount of space you have, how much sun, the moisture-holding ability of your soil, or conversely, how well it is drained.  Eastern New Orleans has success with some plants while Uptown has better luck with others.  Note what blooms best in your neighborhood through the Spring and Summer.

By Fall the migrant butterflies should be returning and our local butterfly population should have built up.  Barring hurricanes, you should have more butterflies, more brightly colored ones, and more that seem to linger.  This is when you will bless the BUDDLEJA (butterfly bush), LANTANA (ham-and-eggs), ASCLEPIAS (butterfly milkweed), LIATRIS (Blazing star), VERNONIA (Ironweed), Phlox, Cosmos, Asters, Verbena, and Ageratum that you planted in the Spring.  EUPATORIUM and Goldenrod sometimes volunteer and are worth their weight in gold as nectar sources, if you can persuade your neighbors that you have them on purpose rather than by laziness.

              There are several interesting facts about butterflies that you might find useful in planning your garden:

              1.  Butterflies see quite well and in a wider spectrum of light wave-lengths than we see.  When photographed on ultravioletsensitive film some flowers show targets or guidelines to the nectar source.  This, plus some colors in the longer red spectrum, may serve as clues to an observant butterfly.              2.  Butterflies “taste” with their feet.  When some pattern or color catches their eye they will drift in for a closer check.  If they “taste” food, they become your guests.  If they “taste” foreign chemical, they probably will move on.  Plants that must be sprayed are better grown at a distance from your butterfly garden.  Roses and Hydrangeas of the cultivated varieties lack nectar glands in any case.              3.  Butterflies get their nourishment in liquid form, drawn through a “soda-straw”-like tongue (called a proboscis).  This proboscis remains coiled inside the mouthparts until the “taste-buds” on the feet signal food.  The proboscis uncoils and becomes a probe searching the flower parts.  A flower tube about half the length of the proboscis is usually the one chosen.              4.  Butterflies like to feel secure.  If you can grow nectar plants against a backdrop of shrubbery or a wall, you will help break strong winds, narrow the range of exposure to enemies, and provide a little extra warmth during cool spells.B.  Now that you have made an effort to lure the local butterflies, you may still have few visitors, and even these may eat and run.  So the next order of business is to attract egg-laying females.  While the butterfly in the adult flying form will take food where it can find it, the larval form (the caterpillar) is a lot more selective.  It is fortunate for the caterpillar that its mother will search out the proper larval food-plant before depositing her eggs, thereby assuring the newly hatched babies a handy meal.  These females may stay in your neighborhood for several days.  One of the more interesting aspects of butterfly gardening is watching the egg-laying, the hatching, the growth, and the molting of the caterpillars and the formation of the pupal stage (the chrysalis).  Pictures of chrysalis do not do them justice, so raise some for the sheer thrill of it!                  When the adult butterflies emerge from their fragile cases, they will spend a few hours spreading and drying their wings before setting sail.  Those that grow in your yard are more likely to remain in your neighborhood, especially if there is ample food and companionship.              The following list of our more common butterflies and their required larval food-plants can be used as a guide for planning your garden.  Remember that you do not have to provide food for EVERYBODY and that the larger plants (trees, for instance) need not be in YOUR yard.  Maybe a new neighbor would like a seedling for a housewarming gift, or the Parkway Commission might accept a large shrub as a gift to place in the neutral ground near you.  Some of the plants may stay in pots, one parsley plant on the fence for the black swallowtail, another on the porch for you.  Here is a list of some butterflies and some plants that nourish their larvae.   Monarch . . . . . . . . . .  milkweed (ASCLEPIAS)Cloudless Sulfur . . . . . . candelabra plant (CASSIA ELATA)                             or wild senna (C. MARILANDICA)Gulf Fritillary . . . . . .  passion flowerVariegated Fritillary . . .  passion flowerViceroy. . . . . . . . . . . willowPainted Lady . . . . . . . . sunflower (HELIANTHUS)Red Admiral . . . . . . . .  nettle (URTICA)Buckeye . . . . . . . . . .  Purple geradia (AGALINIS) or snapdragons                                                               (ANTIRRHINUM)Red-spotted Purple . . . . . willow or hawthornQuestion Mark . . . . . . .  hackberry treesGiant Swallowtail . . . . .  citrus or rueSpicebush Swallowtail . . .  camphor or sassafrasTiger Swallowtail . . . . .  tuliptree (LIRIODENDRON)Eastern Black Swallowtail .  parsley, carrot, etc., of the UmbelliferaePipevine Swallowtail . . . . Dutchman’s pipe (ARISTOLOCHIA)Snout . . . . . . . . . . .  hackberry trees For the smaller butterflies (hairstreaks, skippers, etc.) groundcovers such as grasses, clovers, and vetch may be attractants.               The following books will be helpful:BUTTERFLIES AND MOTHS.  Robt. Mitchell & Herbert Zim. Golden Press, NY AUDUBON SOCIETY FIELD GUIDE TO NORTH AMERICAN BUTTERFLIES. Robt.      Pyle. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. THE AUDUBON SOCIETY HANDBOOK FOR BUTTERFLY WATCHERS. Robt. Pyle.    Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY THEME GARDENS. Barbara Damrosch. Workman Publishing Co., Inc., NY 

THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN. Matthew Tekulsky. The Harvard Common Press. Boston, Mass.