Earning Your Garden Wings

A butterfly garden is a jewel in any landscape artist’s hat. Installing one at a home or business will create a beautiful space, as well as a teaching garden and a wildlife refuge packed with years of joyful entertainment. To learn how to create a butterfly garden, we spoke to Sharon Truett of The Natural Gardener, a well-known haven for plant lovers in Austin; Heather Kendall, also of The Natural Gardener; and Leslie Uppinghouse, lepidopterist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

The first thing our experts note is that a butterfly garden is about more than just blooming nectar plants. Of equal or even greater importance are the host plants that provide food for butterfly larvae. They recommend having a variety of both types of plants in the garden for the best variety of butterflies. “You want to create an environment for all stages of life,” says Kendall. Among popular host and nectar plants in The Natural Gardener’s butterfly garden are tropical milkweeds (essential host plant of our well-loved migratory monarch butterfly), fragrant blue mistflowers, lantanas, cigar plants and Mexican Anacacho orchid trees. Wildflower Center’s Uppinghouse also recommends shrubby boneset, mouse ears and frostweed (all shade plants) as well as the more sun-loving flame acanthus and coral honeysuckle. Many trees are butterfly hosts and nectar plants, as well. Redbud, hop tree, goldenball leadtree, kidneywood tree and Pride of Barbados are all at home in a butterfly garden—providing food as well as shelter.   

Butterflies, like all wildlife, need water. The best way to provide water for flying insects is a shady puddle of wet granite or sand. Standing water vessels such as birdbaths are too deep for butterflies (they encourage mosquitoes, as well). A shallow dish or a garden path of wet decomposed granite both work well—the butterflies are attracted to the water as well as the salt minerals in the granite.

In Texas, we can expect to see flying beauties, such as hairstreaks, admirals, flats, several swallowtails (including the Giant swallowtail), Henry’s elfin, monarchs, sulphurs and the stunning Cecropia silkmoths, to name just a few. “There are over eighty varieties of butterflies alone here in Texas, and that doesn’t even take into account the moths!” says Uppinghouse. “All need every bit of habitat we can provide for them.” She points out that we are fortunate in Texas to see fourth- and even fifth-generation monarchs. “If you don’t know the cycle of the monarch and its relationship to Texas, I encourage everyone to study up. It’s important and brings the discussion of pollinator habitat and monarch conservation to our own backyards.”

If one of your goals is to attract and raise monarchs, consider bringing them indoors until they’re ready to fly. At The Natural Gardener, they take in eggs and larvae and raise them indoors. “We released hundreds last year,” says Truett. Also, if you’re growing tropical milkweed for monarchs, it’s important to cut it back to six inches around late October/early November and prevent it from overwintering. This is because of a parasitic protozoan which proliferates in monarch populations in the winter months.

To keep other predators like fire ants away, Uppinghouse recommends spot treating mounds with orange oil or diatomaceous earth, and spreading cinnamon around the chrysalises, as they do at the LBJ Wildflower Center insectary. Of course, never spray the plants or surrounding area with insecticide. It’s also important to avoid plants that have been treated with systemic pesticides, which are absorbed into the plant’s tissues and can’t be washed off. Their use is a major threat to pollinators. The best way to avoid systemic pesticides is to shop locally and ask plenty of questions.

Now is the perfect time to start a butterfly garden. Texas winters are easier than our summers on most plants and wildlife, so getting started in the fall means foliage will have a longer growing season before the heat sets in. Planting a variety of host and nectar plants that bloom in stages will ensure the blessing of a beautiful garden and a happy home for butterflies, pollinators and other wildlife, year-round.

By Laura Cherry • Photography by Carole Topalian