In pursuit of the elusive butterfly garden

I’ve dreamt of having a butterfly garden since my daughter was in preschool. She just graduated from college, and it hasn’t happened yet. But it seems more urgent now than ever.

“Next year,” wrote the New York Times in a recent article, “How to Attract Butterflies,” “the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to decide whether to include the butterfly on the endangered species list.”

The Times advice was simple — plant more native plants; avoid pesticides.

That same week, the Bellevue Botanical Garden had a lecture on butterflies and garden habitat, and the advice of the lecturer Julie O’Donald, a master gardener specializing in butterflies was the same, but she got more down in the weeds, so to speak. And some weeds as it turns out are just what butterflies need.

“The variety of native plants in a garden increases the diversity of butterflies that will be there,” O’Donald said. Natives like nettles and thistles are good butterfly habitat, she added. (However there was a caveat to that: native thistles are common in the mountains, but many other thistles are invasive.)

O’Donald ran through slides of the different types of butterflies that inhabit the Puget Sound low regions and their host plants. She also showed a slide of her own property bought many years ago as a largely barren landscape.  Now it’s quite lush.

“I cultivated nettles for butterfly caterpillars,” she said showing a slide of nettles in a fenced area near a shed. “But they kept branching out beyond the fence.” (They looked like prisoners longing to be free.) She finally moved them when she and her husband painted the shed. “They were never happy fenced up.”

“People talk about caterpillars becoming butterflies as though they just go into a cocoon, slap on wings, and are good to go,” wrote Jennifer Wright in a tweet that went viral and became a meme on Facebook. “Caterpillars have to dissolve into a disgusting pile of goo to become butterflies,” she went on. “So if you’re a mess wrapped up in blankets right now, keep going.”

We love butterflies because they represent transformation, freedom.

But before they get to that point they start off as creepy crawlers, O’Donald reminded the crowd.

Butterflies have a short but specific life cycle. They lay their eggs on the leaves or flowers of native plants; the eggs hatch into a caterpillar. A caterpillar has no other means of getting food than eating the plant that they’re on, said O’Donald. Plants, it turns out, are the adoptive parents of butterfly young. Butterfly caterpillars just keep eating – with minimal damage to the plant. They eat and grow and finally look for a good hiding place to pupate and form a chrysalis.

The butterfly is the adult part of the lifecycle and hardier than its young. It can eat and drink to a greater variety. It’s out there hitting the nectar bars and looking for a mate and shelter for its young before dying.

Some species of butterflies and flowers have evolved together, and the extinction of one can means the extinction of the other, which is what happened with the Atala butterfly, said O’Donald. It was thought extinct when its host flower the Coontie – a native to Florida – almost went extinct. When plants were found and the flower came back, so too did the Atala butterfly. The story is described in The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Douglas Tallamy.

Many plants and seeds are treated with chemicals, and O’Donald recommends buying only organic. 

“How long will the toxicity last?” someone in the audience asked.

 “Often two years and the soil near the plant may also be contaminated,” said O’Donald.

Finding a good variety of native plants at nurseries is difficult, she admits, but “keep asking for them and someday they’ll get better about carrying them.” They can be found at native plant sales hosted a couple of times a year by the Washington Native Plant Society.

One plant to pass over at nurseries is the butterfly bush. Despite its name, it’s not good for butterflies. (It’s been described as junk food for butterflies.) O’Donald explained why, “The butterfly bush only supplies nectar. It doesn’t provide shelter or food for butterfly caterpillars. And it spreads into natural areas where it competes with native plants.”

Habitat for butterflies doesn’t have to be large. Even a few plants on a balcony will create havens and resting places for butterflies to land, said O’Donald.

Butterflies are iconic. We see them in advertising, in art, in design, on book covers, in display windows, and in memes. You almost can’t go a day without seeing one. They’re everywhere, those butterflies, and nowhere.  An actual butterfly is a rare find.

O’Donald’s advice — just start planting.

“Start small,” she says, “While you’re busy doing other things these plants will take off.”

And so will actual butterflies.

Julie O’Donald’s butterfly garden with asters and autumn helenium in the foreground and apple trees and grapevines beyond.
Free and happy nettles.

Resources for creating a butterfly garden and learning more about butterflies:

Common butterflies of the Puget Sound Region and their food plants

Make your yard bee [and butterfly] friendlier

National Wildlife Federation

Washington Butterfly Association

Xerces Society

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