How to attract butterflies to your garden

Monarch butterflies migrate through Oklahoma in the fall. Here's how to attract these and other pretty pollinators.



Monarch Butterfly

Bill Sevier

Monarch butterflies are the only insects that migrate 2,500 miles to a warmer climate each year. Flying through Oklahoma, they spend their winter hibernation in Mexico on oyamel fir trees. Then, they make their journey northward to Canada for the summer.

Monarchs’ fall migration begins in Canada, in early August and reaches Oklahoma in late September. The migration typically involves four generations, each of which goes through four stages of development: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and then adulthood. The time from when the egg is laid to an adult butterfly is about four weeks.

Along with being visually appealing, butterflies serve an important role in our gardens: pollination.

The key to attracting butterflies is to see a garden through their eyes. The more elements you provide, the more species you’ll attract.

Focus on food

So, what are these elements? Food is primary. Large offerings of nectar-rich blooms will attract numerous butterflies. And, a mix of annuals and perennials with different bloom times will ensure an extended period of food sources from spring through autumn. Flowers with flat blooms or bloom clusters are best as these provide a flat landing pad for easy dining. Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susan and yarrow are stalwarts. Blanket Flower — Oklahoma’s state wildflower — also is an excellent choice.

In containers, lantana and red pentas are magnets for butterflies. The smaller blooms of thyme and oregano draw the smaller Spring Azure and Eastern Tailed Blue butterflies, each no bigger than your thumbnail.

Group blooms by color

Planting flowers in groups by color will more quickly guide butterflies to nectar since their vision is not as refined as ours. Butterflies can see into the ultraviolet range and, as such, flowers have evolved over the centuries to guide pollinators to their nectar using UV light to their advantage. In other words, butterflies literally see flowers in a different light than we do as humans.

A cautionary note: Some hybrid flowers bred for specific color or size might be sterile and won’t produce any nectar. You won’t fool the butterflies as they know the difference.

Offer caterpillar food, too

An additional element that will attract butterflies is to offer larval (aka caterpillar) host plants. Caterpillars of different species feed exclusively on particular plants. Having these plants available will not only draw butterflies in to lay their eggs, but will allow you to watch the development of the caterpillars. Caterpillars of the Black Swallowtail (Oklahoma’s state butterfly) feed on parsley, dill and fennel. If you garden with these, plant enough for both you and the caterpillars. On the other hand, monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed.

With nearly 20 different species of milkweed native to Oklahoma, you’re sure to find some that fit your garden area. And, not all milkweeds are aggressive spreaders. Butterfly weed and Green Antelope Horn are two good ones.

Skip the insecticides!

A final word regarding insecticides. Avoid them entirely if you can. Insecticides are indiscriminate, killing beneficial insects as well as pests. And, lingering residue will poison both butterflies and caterpillars as they feed.

Monarch populations continue to decline, so many groups are working tirelessly to support the survival of this species. Butterfly gardening will reward you with hours of growing interest and wonder. So, dig in!

Thank you to Tulsa County Master Gardeners for their expertise in this subject matter. Allen Robinson has been a Master Gardener since 2010.



Lunch and Learn with the Tulsa Master Gardeners

Sept. 18 — Landscaping 101

Starting with a landscape plan will help ensure success.

Sept. 25 — Turf

Get a head start on a beautiful lawn.

Oct. 2 — Trees

How to plant and how to select for best fall color

Oct. 9 — Bulbs

For spring and fall accent color

Presentations are noon-12:50 p.m. at Central Library, 400 Civic Center. Free; bring your lunch. Call 918-746-3701 for more information.

 

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