Attract winged wonders into your yard
Butterflies hold special meaning to me. A few years back my family gathered together as my 100-year-old beloved grandfather peacefully passed away in his home. Shortly afterward, my grandmother and sister went to collect some clothes for his burial. As Gram slid open his closet door, most surprisingly, a beautiful butterfly fluttered out. The improbability, timing and symbolism was not lost on us. This incredible sight lifted our spirits and has become our family’s emblem of hope. We cherish butterflies that explore our gardens and linger for a while. How can anyone resist the delight of a colorful butterfly weaving around a patch of flowers? Plus these lovely cross pollinators help your garden grow. If you’re looking to invite more butterflies into your North Shore yard, here are some tips adapted from the Morton Arboretum and Forest Preserve District of Cook County:
Butterfly Garden Basics:
Around 100 species of butterflies can be found in Cook County. You can design a gorgeous garden that also meets the habitat needs of local butterflies throughout their entire lifecycle. Their lifecycle includes an egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult stage. Ideally a butterfly garden offers both nectar plants to feed adult butterflies and host plants to provide a place for them to lay their eggs and to supply food for caterpillars. Since needs vary from species to species, the more diverse your landscape is of beneficial annuals, herbs, perennials, shrubs and trees, the more butterflies you will attract. Here are a few garden basics to attract winged wonders:
- Select appropriate host plantings native to the Midwest. Butterflies will only lay their eggs on specific plant species, as their caterpillars depend solely on certain foliage for food. The relationship between native plants and local butterflies has co-evolved over many years, and they depend on each other for reproduction and survival. While North Shore landscapes tend to feature plantings introduced from Asia and Europe, many lovely native Midwestern flowers, shrubs and trees have been gaining popularity over the past few years. And don’t worry, leaf damage from hungry caterpillars is usually short-lived and non-threatening to the plant. See listing of host plants below.
- Include a variety of nectar sources, plants are often labeled “butterfly friendly”. Adult butterflies need fuel for their high-energy activities of mating, reproducing, and seeking out food and shelter. While nectar plants can be native and introduced to our region, only natives can serve as both host and nectar sources. See listing of nectar source plants below.
- Situate your garden in the sun to support both plants and butterflies. At least six hours of direct sunlight per day is ideal. Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that often start their day by warming their wings for flight. A large rock in a sunny spot may be an inviting perch.
- Grow plants in masses by color, which are easier to find than single plants. Adult butterflies are attracted to bright, fragrant drifts of colorful blooms.
- Sequence a range of plantings for continuous bloom. Active butterflies need nectar from April to October.
- Provide shelter. Trees and shrubs can provide protection from wind, rain and predators. Shaded areas also provide a place for butterflies to roost at night and cool-down in hot weather.
- Offer shallow watering areas. Butterflies drink from moist soil, wet sand or puddles, and like to flock in puddle groups.
- Avoid herbicides and pesticides. These products can kill fragile butterflies, caterpillars and other beneficial insects. Try nontoxic pest control methods, such as companion planting, pest eating insects, garlic oil and organic horticultural sprays (for more on this, also see Grow Edibles in Your Yard and Nurturing Our Land).
- Be sure to plan a cozy spot for your family to observe and enjoy your fly by visitors, such as a well placed garden bench or window view.
Plantings recommended in our neighborhood:
Nectar Sources (*native species):
Annuals & Herbs: Alyssum, Basil, Cosmos, Garlic Chives, Lantana, Marigold, Nicotiana, Oregano, Petunia, Queen Anne’s Lace, Sage, Salvia, Sunflower, Verbena, Zinnia
Perennials: Alium, *Aster, *Baptisia, *Bee Balm/Bergamot, *Black-eyed Susan, *Boneset, *Butterfly Weed/Milkweed, Catmint, *Clover, *Coreopsis, Daisy/Chryanthemum, *Goldenrod, *Goatsbeard/Aruncus, *Joe-Pye Weed, Lavendar, *Liatris, Lily, Mint, *Phlox, *Purple Coneflower, *Scabiosa, Sedum, *Turtlehead, Veronica, Yarrow
Shrubs: Azaela, Blackberry, Butterfly Bush, *Clethra, *Dogwood, Hydrangea, Lilac, Raspberry, *Serviceberry, *Viburnum
Host Plants (*native species):
Annuals & Herbs: Carrots, Cleome, Dill, Dogwood, Hollyhock, Nasturtiums, Parsley, Snapdragons, Sunflower
Perrenials: *Aster, *Baptisia, *Black-eyed Susan, *Butterfly Weed, *Columbine, *Coreopsis, *Goldenrod, *Purple Coneflower, *Thistles, *Violet
Shrubs & Trees: Apple, Ash, *Birch, *Black Chokeberry, Cherry, *Cottonwood, *Dogwood, Elm, *Hackberry, *Hawthorn, *Hornbeam, *Linden, *Locust, *Oak, *Quaking Aspen, Plum, Poplar, *Redbud, *Serviceberry, *Spicebush, Tulip, *Viburnum, *Willow, *Witch Hazel
Another fun pollinator to watch is the hummingbird. Similar to the butterfly, it enjoys the nectar from many native plants including *Bee Balm/Bergamot, *Butterfly Weed, *Cardinal Flower (Lobelia), *Liatris, *Phlox, *Orange Jewelweed, *Red Columbine, *Trumpet Creeper Vine, *Trumpet Honeysuckle, *Turtlehead and *Turks Cap Lily. Native plantings also support a variety of songbirds, bees beneficial insects and wildlife.
To learn more about local butterflies and native gardens…
- check out websites on butterflies including the Butterfly Site, North American Butterfly Association, Xerces Society, Butterflies and Dragonflies of Illinois and Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, and books including The Field Guide to Butterflies of Illinois by John Bouseman and James Sternberg, and the folding pocket guide Illinois Butterflies and Moths by James Kavanagh
- consult resources on butterfly gardens such as the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Planting a Garden for Butterflies, University of Illinois Extension’s Create a Butterfly Garden, Morton Arboreteum’s Plants that Attract Butterflies, the Forest Preserve’s Butterfly Gardening in Cook County and Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Butterfly & Moth Garden
- visit Dwyer Park’s Butterfly Garden in Winnetka on Elm Street planted and maintained by Garden Guild of Winnetka, Wilmette Park District’s Centennial Prairie Garden at Wilmette and Crawford designed by Charlotte Adelman, the Chicago Botanic Garden Butterflies and Blooms exhibit, Brookfield Zoo’s Butterflies! and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Butterfly Haven (exhibits are mostly Southern hemisphere exotics)
- learn more about choosing *native Midwestern plantings with the The Midwestern Native Garden-Native Alternatives to Nonnative Flowers and Plant, An Illustrated Guide, written by Wilmette residents Charlotte Adelman and Bernard L. Schwartz. Also see these websites: Illinois Wildfowers and The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
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Written by Amanda Hanley in June 2012 and revised in May 2013. Dedicated to William Ruddy, the ultimate grandfather, 1907-2007.