Whether you just want to have lovely, colorful things flitting around in your garden, or you want to venture into some sort of for-profit venture, there are ways to not only encourage butterflies to come to your garden, but to get them to breed, lay eggs, and thrive as caterpillars before they become those shining beacons of color.
Raising Butterflies for Profit?
I spoke to Ellen Reynolds, the owner of a “butterfly house” at Beagle Ridge Herb Farm in Wytheville, Virginia, to get an idea of how she was able to both breed and attract butterflies to her gardens, and how she has managed to turn this into another profit-making part of her business.
The reason I wanted to do this article is that I was sort of a geeky little kid who collected bugs and butterflies and went around telling people I wanted to be an entomologist when I grew up. Most of my friends thought I was a bit weird, riding my bike around with a bug catcher strapped to the back of my banana seat. But I have maintained a fascination for all bugs, and especially butterflies.
Over the years I’ve researched ideas for how to have my cake and eat it too, by raising butterflies to enjoy and make money from them as well. I’ve found a few businesses online that raise them and release them at weddings, funerals, and other events to make some money. I’ve also heard of a few places where you can order fully developed butterflies, still alive, but folded in little envelopes during shipping so they don’t beat their wings up, then you can either raise them or release them at different events. Many of these same places also sell eggs and larvae.
It seems that, if you have the energy, focus, and a little backup money to hold you through the lean times, just about anything can be turned into a money-making venture.
For one thing, you can start an herb and butterfly farm like Ellen and educate the public with tours of the gardens and lectures on local wildlife and fauna, but then that requires a ton more learning than I could ever cover in this article. In fact, Ellen has taken special classes to not only become a master gardener but a master naturalist as well.
They also have tea parties and other events in the butterfly house, which I think of as more of a butterfly garden because it isn’t really enclosed with solid walls or anything. It is more like a tent made of wire, with holes just small enough to keep butterflies from leaving, and just clear enough to let the gardens’ pastoral views and sunshine come in.
With an already thriving farm where they grow all types of herbs and also make and sell herb products, they started the butterfly house more recently. In July, Ellen said they were in the middle of their third generation of butterflies in the butterfly house, so her choice of plants to accommodate them has obviously been successful.
Growing Host Plants to Attract Butterflies
I always thought I knew a lot about butterflies from my childhood proclivities, but other than the fact that Monarch larvae must have milkweed to eat, I was not really aware that other butterflies were so species-specific when it comes to what plants their larvae prefer to eat and thus, which plants they lay their eggs on.
Butterflies use two different types of plants: those that provide nectar for the adults to eat (nectar plant), and those that provide food for their offspring (host plant). Butterflies are not picky about nectar plants and will drink from just about any flower available, but they are all plant-specific when it comes to where they lay their eggs so their caterpillars can eat what they prefer.
And just like each plant is different for its purpose, each butterfly is different in color and pattern. So while you may be used to choosing your plants according to how you like their shapes and the colors of their flowers, it might be fun to try choosing your plants according to what shapes and colors of butterflies they can attract through the feeding of their larvae.
So who eats what?
Growing a Butterfly Garden
Fennel—which has wispy, feathery leaves and clusters of small, yellow flowers—and parsley—which has interesting leaves and clusters of flowers that aren’t very colorful—are the favorite for the black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). This is a large butterfly with what look like little shirttails on the bottoms of its lower wings, hence the name swallowtail. Well, actually, I guess they named it after the type of tails swallows have, but I think they also look like shirttails. You will probably notice its vivid yellow and blue coloring on the edges of the wings before you ever realize that its predominant color is black.
The larvae of the comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) prefer hops for dinner. Yes, the same hops used to brew beer. Maybe you can have a beer while watching your butterflies. I’ve never grown hops, and never really thought it was a garden kind of plant, but apparently, some people incorporate them into their landscaping in creative ways since they are very tall and need some type of structure to be stringed up on. The flowers look like small, green pinecones. Hops are fairly tall plants and commas are fairly small butterflies. However, the commas have pretty orange coloring with black markings, and their wings are a fascinating shape with sort of fluted edges
The word “stinging” may make you think twice about putting something of the sort in your garden, and their flowers aren’t exactly show stoppers, but stinging nettle is the plant that plays host to the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), a medium-sized butterfly with red and black and white on its wings. The red admiral captures your eye with flashes of red as it flutters around. I saw a great many more red admirals when I lived in South Dakota as a child, perhaps because there was a horse pasture across the street where I did my butterfly hunting, and probably a lot of stinging nettle growing there.
In addition to stinging nettle, false nettle is a host plant for the red admiral, as well as the common buckeye butterfly. The buckeye is a fawn colored butterfly with amazingly vivid eyespots lining the edges of its wings. While eyespots on moth and butterfly wings are thought to be a protective mechanism to scare off potential predators, it seems this butterfly has overdone it a little with so many eyes, but they sure are beautiful.
Are purple and orange a good color combination? That’s what you can get if you raise violets with their deep purple flowers, as they play host to the eggs and larvae of the great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele), a fancy name for a fancy looking butterfly that is deep orange “spangled” with black speckles.
The painted lady (Vanessa cardui), another butterfly with patterns of orange, black, and white, uses hollyhock and thistles as its host plants.
The leaves of many common trees also play host to a number of butterflies. The willow tree is a host for the mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa), which has dark blueish black wings with a yellow border and small bright blue spots on the inner edge of that border, and the pawpaw tree is host to the larvae of the zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus), a white swallowtail with black zebra-like stripes. Cherry and poplar are for tiger swallowtails (Papilio appalachiensis, P. canadensis, P. glaucus, and P. rutulus), which are similar in appearance to zebra swallowtails but with a yellow background.
And, true to its name, the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) uses spicebush as its host.
Asters, those lovely lavender-colored flowers, are hosts for the pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos), another vivid black and orange butterfly, but quite small.
And, of course, monarchs (Danaus plexippus)raise their eggs and larvae specifically on milkweed.
Monarchs are one butterfly most everybody is familiar with, I guess because of its bright orange coloring with vivid black lines and for its reputation of making long migrations across the United States to Mexico for the winter. Consequently, it is pretty common in most parts of the country.
The monarch caterpillar is described in most articles as having bands of black, orange, and white. I was ecstatic when I noticed one of my milkweed plants was covered in tiny, fuzzy caterpillars that had bands of black, orange, and white. Little did I know, monarch caterpillars are not fuzzy, and these caterpillars were actually from another species that doesn’t become a very attractive butterfly.
Instead, these were the caterpillars of the milkweed tussock moth (Euchaetes egle). These moths use milkweed as hosts for their caterpillars as well. I thought the fuzzy milkweed tussock caterpillar was adorable because I just love anything with fur.
But in spite of all its cuteness, this caterpillar and its siblings can decimate a milkweed leaf in an hour or so. I actually picked a leaf full of the critters, sat it down on the sidewalk and glanced at it from time to time as I did some yard work. First, it was a leaf full of caterpillars. Then it was a twig, the caterpillars having left it for new territory. But as beautiful as the tussock caterpillar is, its resulting moth is no bell of the ball. It is a small dull whitish-grey colored moth the size of the ones that probably flutter around your porch light in the evenings. So I’m not really sure how to feel about tussocks. The caterpillars are lovely, but they eat too much, and the moths are… blah.
How Do Butterflies Know Which Plants to Eat?
Here is one very interesting note that I came upon while researching for this article. When you consider how difficult it sometimes is for us humans to identify types of plants, you’ve got to wonder how butterflies are so astute at this process. According to one source I found, the female lands on a leaf and drums on it with her forelegs. Then, the specialized chemical receptors in her forelegs sense/taste/smell the leaf and its chemical exhalations to confirm or deny the host-worthiness of the plant. Fascinating!
But wait! This just in from Wikipedia, quoting from MonarchJointVenture.org: “The black swallow-wort and pale swallow-wort plants are problematic for monarchs in North America. Monarchs lay their eggs on these relatives of native vining milkweed because they produce stimuli similar to milkweed. Once the eggs hatch, the caterpillars are poisoned by the toxicity of this invasive plant from Europe.”
Wow! I guess we can all be fooled now and then. Maybe that’s why we don’t hear much about monarchs in Europe… except for the governing kind.