Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
This occurs in many gardens — both those with a few host plants that have attracted butterflies that are dancing among the flowers now and those with full-fledged butterfly habitats.
There is something special about butterflies. Their gentle nature, awesome colors and gracefulness in flight touch the hearts of all of us. They have symbolic meanings in many cultures, and they have inspired artists and poets for centuries.
Perhaps, these are the reasons so many of us invite them into our gardens, which is relatively easy to do.
Basic requirements for a butterfly garden are sun, nectar source plants, larval host plants and a pesticide-free environment.
Butterflies are coldblooded and need sunlight to absorb warmth for flight and other activities. They also need water and moist areas. Some, such as swallowtails, congregate around the edges of shallow depressions filled with water. This behavior is commonly referred to as “mud-puddling” (a new word for your vocabulary although Spellcheck doesn’t recognize it).
If you want more butterflies in your garden, September is a good time to consider adding a few perennial plants that meet their needs.
Butterflies need “host” plants on which females lay their eggs. The plants must meet the needs of all four stages of the life cycle: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis (also called pupal stage) and adult. Each species of butterfly requires specific plants for its caterpillars to eat. Some will starve to death before eating any plant other than its own host.
Host plants include Artemisia, asters, coneflowers, dill, false nettle, fennel, hollyhock, milkweeds, passion vine, pawpaw tree, pipe vine, Queen Anne’s lace, rue, snapdragon, spicebush, cleome, sweet bay magnolia and tulip poplar. The ideal time to plant many of these perennials and trees is late fall.
Plants for specific butterflies include butterfly weed (milkweed family) for the Monarch; dill, parsley, fennel and rue for black Swallowtail; tulip tree for Tiger Swallowtail; and passion vine flower for Gulf Fritillary.
Butterflies also need specific plants for nourishment and are attracted to nectar-rich flowers and blooming shrubs in a variety of colors and shapes. They eat through their straw-like tongues so think of them as being on a liquid diet.
Among nectar plants to consider for your garden are verbena, coneflower, cardinal flower, goldenrod, lantana, butterfly bush, milkweeds, Mexican sunflower, phlox, sunflower, zinnia, cosmos, dianthus, penta and petunia. Most of these are annuals that should be planted next spring.
And while plants that provide nectar are more showy and fun to have in the garden, “You need both types to satisfy your butterflies,” writes retired Professor Gerald Klingaman in a University of Arkansas fact sheet.
Dangers for butterflies include pesticides as well as insects and birds; however, they are pretty clever at camouflaging themselves within the leaves of their host plants.
As for the downside of butterfly gardening, Dr. Klingaman sums it up perfectly:
“While many gardeners like butterflies, most are not as enamored with the caterpillars because they do eat holes in the leaves of the plants and sometimes appear to be consuming the whole plant. While it may not be totally aesthetically pleasing, that is their role in the chain of life for butterflies, and it really doesn't hurt the host plants.
“If you want butterflies, then you also need caterpillars, and they won't eat every plant in your yard — they have their specific host requirements.”
There is an opportunity for folks in the river valley to get a good look at habitats of pollinators at The Learning Fields at Chaffee Crossing, located at 7300 Gardener Ave., on October 1.
Admission to the third annual Honeybees and Pollinators Festival, which begins at 9 a.m., is free and open to the public. In addition to demonstration gardens and activities for children, two lectures are scheduled.
Master Gardener and retired member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Jerry McGary will speak on trees and shrubs that support pollinators, beginning at 10 a.m.
At 1 p.m., Dr. Neelendra Joshi, Ph.D., assistant professor of entomology at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, will discuss procedures for establishing wildflower plantings in backyards and small gardens as well as other aspects of pollinator management and conservation practices. His topic will also cover our native bees.( The official Honey Bee Colony of Fort Smith is located at The Learning Fields.)
Last year, the Learning Fields’ Butterfly Habitat Garden was accepted into the nationwide Monarch Waystation Program for its efforts to sustain Monarch butterflies in Arkansas. The program is an initiative based at Kansas University designed to provide Monarchs with resources to survive their yearly migration.
Master Gardener Leta Caplinger, who designed the garden, said the waystation program is meant to inspire people to create small plots of land, called waystations, filled with specific plants that Monarchs need to survive. Milkweeds are especially important because they are the only plants these caterpillars feed on.
She added that the Butterfly Habitat Garden is designed to show home gardeners how to include habitat for many kinds of butterflies into their landscapes.
Interest in butterfly gardening has been growing since 1992, and is a popular topic for schoolchildren. There are 150 species of butterflies in Arkansas, and the official state butterfly is Diane Fritillary.
Because Monarch butterflies cannot survive winters in the U.S., they trek 3,000 miles to the mountains of Mexico for winter hibernation and then return in the spring. Their migration through Arkansas has already begun and usually peaks from late September through mid-October.
Incidentally, there are two butterfly houses within easy driving of Fort Smith. The only one located in our region of Arkansas is at Botanical Gardens of the Ozarks in Fayetteville.
The other is Oklahoma’s only Butterfly House, located in Honor Heights Park, which is famous for its azalea festivals each year in Muskogee. This open-air sanctuary includes 26 varieties of native butterfly species, according to their website.
You may have noticed some awesome local photos accompanying this and other recent columns. The credit goes to fellow Master Gardener and friend Pat Robbins. Pat takes hundreds of photos of flowers, plants, gardens and everything horticultural as well as people. Her photos have appeared in several of the Arkansas Master Gardener calendars.
According to photofocus.com, Number 3 of The 10 Top Traits of a Good Photographer is: Storytelling is the heart of good photography, and good photographers need to tell stories with their cameras. Pat does it well.
Next week, the topic will be “a dozen tough-as-nails perennials” for the river valley.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 3 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.