Ohio has many beautiful butterflies and skippers. Included in these are swallowtails, white and yellow sulphurs, coppers, viceroys, and monarchs. Gardens which attract and nourish these butterflies have several key features. The first is an abundance of large flat-topped or clustered flowers in bright colors of red, orange, yellow, pink, or purple. The colors and scent of the flowers attract the butterflies and encourage them to stay. The flowers can be perrenials like garden phlox and sedum or annuals like ageratums, marigolds, and zinnias. These bright beautiful flowers produce the nectar the butterflies need.
Some consideration should be given to choosing native plants as the flower source. Native plants are a benefit to the garden because they require little care and produce nectar and folliage for butterflies. Native Ohio plants include butterfly weed, sky blue aster, black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, and Joe-Pye weed. Butterflies are pollinators of these plants.
Planting for continuous bloom will also help the butterflies. Butterflies have a short life span and produce more than one generation in a summer. Having early blossoming flowers like lilacs and rhodendron, summer blooming plants like daylilies and purple salvia, and late blossoming plants like asters and sedum will provide nourishment to successive broods of butterflies.
All the flowers listed above grow well in full sun, a second feature of a butterfly garden. The flowers need sun to make food for themselves and produce nectar. Butterflies use the sun to orient themselves and to warm their wings for flight.
A third feature of a butterfly garden is the inclusion of host plants that serve as food for the caterpillars. Many of us know that the monarch lays their eggs on the leaves of a milkweed plant, food for the caterpillar. Milkweed can be planted from seed but may not be a favorite in flower gardens because it spreads by rhizomes and blowing seed. It needs to be controlled in the garden or planted in a less formal area.
Monarchs will also use the leaf of butterfly weed as food, a plant friendlier to the garden and easier to control. Some butterflies use parsley, dill, fennel, Queen-Anne’s lace, clovers, poplar, or wild cherry. (A good resource to find what host plants a butterfly needs is Common Butterflies and Skippers of Ohio Publication 204 of The Ohio Division of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. This resource will also help you identify the butterflies, part of the fun of a butterfly garden. )
Finally gardeners should not use pesticides or herbicides in a butterfly garden. These kill the butterflies and other useful insects. To discourage pests plant marigolds, petunias, mint, and other herbs that naturally repel pests. Also encourage ladybugs and dragonflies in your gardens.
Other garden features will also aid the butterflies. Watering the flowers gives them moisture. Butterflies sometimes like small puddles from which they obtain mineral salts. Decorative stones placed in the garden can also aid the butterflies by giving them a place to rest and warm themselves.
There are many resources for information about butterfly gardens. Try websites on the topic or visit your local library. Zoos, botanical gardens, garden centers and nurseries also have information on butterflies as well as butterfly houses where you see them in action. You can start with a few plants or a whole garden.
Whatever you chose, you will find enjoyment in both the flowers and the wildlife all summer.