A Bounty of Butterflies

Written 2005.  Published by the Lake of Bays Association 2012.

I have recently been identified by a friend as a ‘selfish gardener’.  After progressing from the initial disbelief, through abhorring the idea, to being rather angry, I am now very close to accepting and embracing this statement; especially since I can’t deny I have a little obsession.

As soon as the frost is out, I drop everything and run off to the gardens.  I leave my family standing there mouths agape (but with lunch in the fridge) watching my back as I hustle down the trails as fast as my galoshes will allow.  For me, there’s nothing more fun than tossing earthworms, taking stock, and preparing everything for summer’s all to short symphony of colour.  I may be on the verge of becoming a gardening addict.  I know I’ve lost all restraint.  I just love soil.  I immerse myself up to my elbows in sticky, sweet muck.  Despite the kerchief, it still gets in my hair and smeared across my forehead and I find great amusement in going to pick up more garden supplies in my lovely, dirty state.  Don’t even ask about the state of my car…

Selfishness? Addiction?  It could be either.  There’s no denying there is a lot of self-gratification in gardening.  You get outside, breathe fresh air, move your muscles, burn calories and it’s a great way to relieve stress – just take it out on the weeds!  There are other rewards, too- Lavender sachets, Choke cherry jelly on toast, Highbush cranberry jam with turkey, fresh Oregano sprinkled on spaghetti- if this is selfishness, I don’t want to stop!

Maybe I can manage some justification. One of the greatest joys of gardening is how it allows us to commune with nature.  To watch flowers swaying in the breeze lulls the mind into meditation.  Working with the earth and with plants brings life-long learning.  Observing any garden up close reveals amazing wildlife and plant interactions that might otherwise go unnoticed.  Here’s my best argument of all – creating and maintaining a garden is actually generous!  Obviously your family and neighbours benefit from the beauty and bounty, but purchasing, reproducing and caring for plants is also a form of conservation, which helps many other living things too. No matter how small the space, a garden is a cradle for species diversity – and diversity within an ecosystem is one way scientists measure environmental health.  Every plant introduced to a garden creates a new little system, or home space, capable of providing food, shelter and meeting places where some creature(s) can eat, sleep, bask in the sun, and socialize.  Now I ask you, how could the host of an environmental oasis for hundreds, or even thousands, of creatures be selfish?

I’m prepared to argue further for those who spend most of their time in an organic garden.  They are giving much more!  Or ideally they are. I am an organic gardener, blending indigenous plants along with my favourite old cultivars.  This is great for the environment, as the native plants are capable of interacting with their natural surroundings, and it is great for gardeners too.  When a garden is left to function naturally and organically, with diligent tending by the human hand, it is as capable as a chemically maintained garden of producing a vast yield of colours and tastes. It is a myth that naturalized, healthy gardens have to be messy with a poor palette. Is it more work to garden organically?  Perhaps, but we garden because we love it, so extra time in the garden isn’t a bad thing for us selfish gardeners. Remember though, we are also doing good for even the tiniest of wild creatures and the rewards can be enormous.

Let me tell you about ONE of these rewards: when we create home space, watering holes and a bounty of food for some of the most beautiful, unobtrusive, and serene garden guests imaginable we get a great return. These guests pollinate our plants and bring genetic diversity to our space.  With their bright colours and hints of iridescence, they will provide an unmatchable display of glitzy yet tranquil entertainment throughout the spring and summer.  Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get to know our special guest…the glittery, flittery, none-too-jittery, rarely bashful BUTTERFLY.

R.K. BarK Botanical Studio Fritillary 4x5.jpg
Great Spangled Fritillary on a Swamp Milkweed bloom in early July, Lower Oxtongue River.

To get started we must understand for whom we are gardening: the order Lepidoptera, a.k.a. butterflies -and some not very orderly moths- so here are some facts about these pretty critters.

Butterflies love basking in the sun. Like reptiles, they are cold-blooded and depend on the sun’s rays to warm them throughout the day.  In our climate, they are naturally most active at and after noon when the sun is at its warmest.  Most butterfly-friendly plant species, such as wild berries, do best in full sun, so choosing plants for the butterfly garden is really as easy as eating raspberry pie.  Just look for the full sun symbol.

Butterflies don’t like wind.  They are a relaxed bunch of delicate insects so they don’t like to struggle while eating.  Butterfly gardens should be placed in areas sheltered from prevailing winds, such as by walls, hedges, fences or the forest’s edge.

Butterflies like to sip water.  Our winged visitors need to wash down their sweet meals with sips of the best thirst quencher around: fresh water.  It doesn’t take much, but they like it best where moisture is constantly dripping- like at the base of a downspout, or in very shallow pools.  Biologists know that butterflies, particularly males, gather in large groups around puddles which produce salt crystals as the stagnant water evaporates into the sun.  Sprinkling a tiny dash of salt on your water source and replenishing it after heavy rainfalls may bring a wider variety of butterfly species to the garden.  Although it does skirt the subject of saltiness, we won’t embellish on the butterfly’s fondness for excrement.

White Admirals ‘puddling’ on a pile of poop. That’s some great minerals!  Algonquin Park.

Butterflies prefer an all-you-can-eat buffet of various nectars.  Creating a garden with a smorgasbord of shape, scent and colour will attract butterflies in more shapes, sizes and colours to enjoy, but importing exotic plant varieties does not encourage native butterfly populations.  It is best to include as many indigenous plant species as possible if you want to attract butterflies and increase their population.  In turn, they’ll improve the diversity of the surrounding environment and give you many more spectacular photo opportunities.  As you plan your garden, include plants to provide a progression of blooms so butterflies can enjoy the blooms for the entirety of our brief warm season.

Many butterflies have short proboscises (tongues).  There are only a few species that can reach the nectar in very long, narrow, tubular flowers.  Choose brightly coloured flowers that openly invite winged wildlife to drink their nectar and distribute their pollen.  If deep tubular flowers are your favourites, you can take comfort in the fact that hummingbirds have long, agile tongues and will never turn up their beaks when offered the beauty of a bell.

Butterflies lay their eggs on plant species their caterpillars eat.  It’s kind of like leaving meals in the fridge when you run off to the garden.  Like all parents, they only want the best when it comes to their kids, and butterflies can be very picky.  If there’s a butterfly you’d like to see, you need to know what their offspring likes to eat.  The larvae will chew, grow, and attach their chrysalis on or around their favorite food, with the food sometimes contributing to their safety (monarchs eat the milkweed because it makes them taste bad to predators). The plants will be nibbled on, but it is a symbiotic relationship as the parents pollinate the flowers.  Don’t worry, the plant can handle a little loss; some pruning by larvae makes the root system hardier.

R.K. Milkweed with Monarch larvae 5 IMG_6180.jpg
Monarch caterpillars on a lone Common Milkweed plant.  Baysville.

Butterflies cannot tolerate pesticides of any kind.  If there is any pesticide use near your garden -even in roadside ditches- caterpillar have a good chance of ingesting the poison, with death a likely result.  All pesticides, chemical, biological, genetically modified, or systemic, affect more than just their target (think honeybees).  The bacterial/fungal pesticide Btk (Bacillus thurngiensis kurstaki), for example, is a “biological technique” for controlling cabbage white, gypsy moth and tent caterpillars.  Research has shown that drifting pollen from Btk-modified corn can harm butterfly larvae on nearby, untreated plants.  Use only organic methods of pest control if you want healthy butterfly visitors.

So where does one begin once the decision has been made to become a kindred host? 

  1. Start by thinking of your favorite plants and colours and go ahead and use them.
  2. Peruse the butterfly menus attached and see what matches your preferences.
  3. Sketch or visualize where the plants will go in your garden. Double check that your placements fit the criteria listed above.
  4. Protect the natural environment by buying nursery-grown stock rather than trying to transplant your own. Many butterfly plants don’t do well when transplanted.
  5. Plant your selections in plenty of rich soil during cool predictably rainy weather. Spend a bit of time tending to them to make sure they take root. Water deeply for the first month or two.
R.K. Joe Pye weed with Monarch IMG_3060.jpg
Monarch on Joe-pye weed.  Trappers Trail, Haliburton County.

Now sit back and get ready for a never-ending nature show where any day can bring a new and interesting visitor!

What’s to be expected after so much thoughtful preparation?  The table is set and the nursery decorated, but when will the guests arrive? Butterflies generally require temperatures to be above 16oC to emerge from hibernation or migrate from their exotic winter residences to summer in Central Ontario.  Once they’re here, some butterflies keep rigid itineraries and visit the same flower at the same time every day.

Okay, okay…I’ll stop with the trivia.  When the Lepidoptera finally choose your garden, what is the best way to enjoy them?  Some garden hosts pull out a field guide and begin to identify their guests – Butterflies of Algonquin Provincial Park by Gard W. Otis is an excellent reference for gardeners in Lake of Bays.  Some butterfly hosts dutifully record and count their guests for the North American Butterfly Association’s annual Fourth of July Butterfly Count, while simultaneously hoping to add a few new species to their ‘life lists’.  Now, my mother would say there is no better way to educate a child about nature’s life cycles than to observe the pupae’s metamorphosis from an earth-bound larva into a floating jewel of a butterfly.  To sit patiently as it emerges, damp and wrinkled, is almost too much to bear. Remember – don’t touch, it will do fine on its own.  Then to wait for just a little longer, as its wings unfurl and the body hardens to sparkle in the warmth of the sun before it can take its first flight…This can be an awe full lesson in patience for hurried adults as well.

When you have your own butterfly garden, you’ll understand: it is a little selfish, it could easily become an addiction, and it is definitely generous. Don’t feel too guilty after all, butterflies leave meals behind and fly off too, remember?  So when the afternoons are too muggy to work, I sit back and relax in my hammock with my girls, let my husband take the photos, and enjoy the silent beauty of the hovering butterfly, revelling in the fact that I have contributed towards one of the most colourful and complex shows on Earth: a Butterfly Garden.

Recommended Reading:

Opler, P.A. and Malikue, V.  1992.  A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston.

Otis, G.W.  1994.  Butterflies of Algonquin Provincial Park. The Friends of Algonquin Park. Whitney.


May the forest be with you!  R.K.

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