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Make a butterfly happy

On nature

POSTED: March 29, 2008 5:00 a.m.
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A monarch butterfly sits on a sunflower.

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My grandmother was a simple, practical woman who did not escape passion. She was crazy about flowers.
That love sent her traipsing through the woods with a shovel and a burlap sack, since she couldn't afford buying plants, digging up anything that bloomed to transplant in her own gardens.
My grandmother's passion is the reason that my yard is full of butterflies.
The dooryard quince starts to bloom, then the pear trees, and one early spring day I notice the first butterfly.
Soon they will be in full swing, a little armada with bright sails, fluttering over my grandmother's bottle brush and coral vine. There will be sulphurs, hairstreaks, swallowtails, viceroys, skippers, monarchs, and more.
Georgia is home to more than 160 species of butterfly.
Walking through the yard will be like walking through confetti.
You can attract flutterbys to your yard by planting nectar plants, especially native ones. (The butterflies evolved with this vegetation.) But if you want the butterflies to stay all season, you have to grow plants that supply food for the larval stage of a butterfly's life. Zebra swallowtail larvae, for example, feed only on pawpaw, while maypops serve as hosts for gulf fritillaries.
Some caterpillars, of course, will feed on garden vegetables. The gorgeous black swallowtail, one of my favorites, eats parsley, dill and carrots. I don't mind. I just plant extra. I'll gladly trade parsley for swallowtails.
Information on host and larval plants for Georgia butterflies is readily available at your library.
I've learned a few other tips for butterfly gardeners. Since butterflies can't drink from open water, they love puddle areas - wet sand or mud. Being cold-blooded, they also like to bask in the sun on stones or bricks, which allow them to raise their body temperatures more quickly on cool mornings. They also appreciate some disorder, meaning plant debris and leaves, where they may hide or conceal their eggs.
For this reason, let a few sunny areas in your yard go wild. Grasses and native wildflowers are the best draws for butterflies. Over time, you can introduce other native plants, especially those that offer a staggered blooming season, in order to offer a steady progression of flowers throughout the warm months.
Remember, although my grandmother did, do not dig plants from the wild. Butterflies are dependent upon native habitat for their survival, and the diminishment of plant communities severely threatens their numbers. Purchase nursery propagated stock or propagate your own.
May your yard become more lively and beautiful than mine.

Ray is the author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.
 

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