Inviting caterpillars into your garden - on purpose
By FAITH ROELOFS
Originally Published: April 16, 2009 10:40 p.m.
With spring busting out all over, many of us are thinking about flowers. If you are a butterfly lover, you may be looking for those plants for your garden that provide vibrant color, long floral tubes full of nectar, or large heads of multiple flowers that provide a landing platform for butterflies. The Highlands Center for Natural History will offer numerous flowering plants at its "Grow Native!" plant sale April 25. Plants in the composite, penstemon, salvia, and yucca groups - just to name a few - provide excellent nectar sources for adult butterflies and much beauty to your garden. The true butterfly gardener may want to go one step further, however, and grow plants that provide food for the larvae of butterflies to enhance the populations of adult butterflies in the neighborhood year after year. Growing plants specifically to be eaten takes a certain amount of tolerance for ragged looking plants. A typical caterpillar must eat about 3,000 times its birth weight before changing into the pupa stage. Since an adult female butterfly may lay more than one egg on a host plant, the larvae can strip that plant bare of leaves and kill it. Providing enough plants to feed the hungry hoard is important to allow them to develop into mature adults.Selecting host plants for specific butterflies can add a special adventure to your summer gardening. Penstemons of various species are host plants for checkerspot butterfly larvae and provide nectar for butterfly adults, hummingbirds, and hummingbird moths. There will be 12 species of these attractive and hardy perennials at the HCNH plant sale.The common globe mallow, which some may consider a weed, is a host plant of the gray hairstreak, a small, fast-flying butterfly with two tails and an orange eye spot on each of its hind wings. The eyespot may fool a hungry bird to go for the tail instead of the head and give the butterfly a chance to get away with only minor damage. The larvae of the painted lady also like globe mallow and hollyhocks, but thistles are their favorite. In March and April, painted ladies migrate out of Northern Mexico in large numbers; so look for them heading north. Adults are large orange and black butterflies with white spots on the wing tips and white crescents on the lower margins of the wings. This butterfly is common and a delight to see in any garden. Check your vegetable garden for butterfly larvae, especially on broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and other members of the mustard family. They are highly attractive to the cabbage white butterfly larvae that are found all over the U.S. Also look on your carrots, fennel, and dill for the larvae of the black swallowtail. Think of them as wearing black and white striped pajamas with yellow polka dots. The adult is one of the most beautiful butterflies around.Some tips for keeping your butterfly visitors happy: Select a sunny location with protection from wind. Avoid pesticides on your plants. Use drip irrigation instead of overhead spray which may knock caterpillars off plants. Provide wet mud or sand for butterflies to "puddle" in. Set out ripe fruit like mashed banana, orange sections, or pineapple skins.Butterfly watching in your own garden can be pure delight with a pair of binoculars or a camera and a good book for identifying your winged visitors. Books and seeds will be available for purchase at the Highlands Centers "Grow Native!" plant sale, Educational Festival, and Vendor Fair, located along Walker Road two miles south of Highway 69.Faith Roelofs has her master's degree in botany from the University of Hawaii and now resides in Prescott.This is the third in a series of articles leading up to the April 24-25 native plant sale at the Highlands Center for Natural History near Prescott.