Area Gardeners Plant for Butterflies

Recreating Nature: Gardening for Butterflies

An eastern black swallowtail. (Photo by Glenda C. Booth)

By Glenda C. Booth

Alexandria, VA – When Veneeta Anand bought a house on a 5,000-square-foot lot in Rosemont in 2002, the backyard was a swimming pool ringed by grass. By 2010, she had filled the pool, killed the grass and created a robust native plant garden. Today, in most months, bees and butterflies swirl around her garden. One day last September, she chirped, “Those two are mating. There they go!” and they zipped up into a neighbor’s tree.

Today, her front and back yards are thriving with native plants like asters, milkweed and ironweed. Bees are buzzing. Insects are nibbling. Butterflies are fluttering. There’s not a blade of grass in sight. In cold frames, she starts arugula, parsley, peppers, blue basil and fennel, a favorite of the black swallowtail butterfly. Her plantings have attracted at least five other butterfly species: Eastern tiger swallowtail, cabbage white, spicebush, red spotted purple and skippers. Her garden is certified as a Monarch Watch Waystation and a National Wildlife Federation backyard habitat.

Veneeta Anand’s backyard in Rosemont. (Photo by Glenda C. Booth)

Anand doesn’t just plant plants that support insects, she raises butterflies. “In India, where I grew up, we had hens and cows,” she offers. Today she’s moved from poultry and bovines to monarch butterflies and in 2018, she raised a black swallowtail. “Once you raise monarchs, it’s an addiction,” she says.

During the work week, she is the Director of Communications for Cheiron, Inc., a financial analysis and actuarial consulting firm.

Sue, Too

Sue Tate has an insect frenzy going on in her Monarch Waystation, too, at her Del Ray home where she’s lived with husband Bill for 35 years. Multiple species of butterflies and bees visit plants like hyssop, cosmos, milkweed and Joe Pye weed. Tate, a retired Fairfax County biology teacher, once gardened for aesthetics, she says, but then read the native plant gardener’s “bible,” Bringing Nature Home by University of Delaware entomologist Dr. Douglas Tallamy. She dug out the non-native, ornamental shrubs and replaced them with native plants. Why?

“We’re taking land for development and not leaving enough for wildlife,” Tate said. “Our backyards can give sustenance to all kinds of little creatures. There should be room for all of us.”

Monarch butterfly caterpillar. (Photo by Glenda C. Booth)

Gardening is in her veins. Inspired by her father and grandfather, she had her first garden at age 12 in Davenport, Iowa. She spreads out cantaloupe seeds for cardinals, following the model of her mother-in-law who saved them 50 years ago. Veneeta and Sue exchange plants and seeds.

Alexandria’s Duncan Library garden is also a certified Monarch Waystation where five volunteers put in over 50 native plants.

Miraculous Monarchs

Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) are four-inch butterflies that have orange wings with black veins and white edges. Monarchs are one of the few butterfly species that migrates. In the fall, they journey from central and eastern U.S. to the oyamel fir forests of central Mexico to overwinter in a dormant state. In the spring, they mate and return north.

In May and June, females lay their green eggs on milkweed plants and die. Their striking yellow-, white- and black-striped caterpillar then feeds exclusively on milkweed leaves and forms a chrysalis out of which the adult butterfly emerges. This generation mates and establishes another brood. In the fall, the new generation flies south.

The monarchs’ migration is “an extraordinary biological phenomenon,” Chip Taylor, University of Kansas biologist and Monarch Watch head told American Gardener magazine.

Monarch butterfly populations plummeted for many years because of pesticide and herbicide use, milkweed loss and logging in Mexico. In 2013-14, fewer monarchs made it to Mexico than ever before, the lowest number ever since 1993. In that year, they occupied 1.66 acres of Mexico’s mountain forests of Mexico, a historic low. In January 2019, many people were cheered to learn that monarchs occupied 14.95 acres, the largest measurement since 2006-2007.

The increase this winter is no guarantee of a long-term trend, experts caution.

“It buys us time,” Ryan Norris of the University of Guelph told the Associated Press.

Scientists maintain that 15 acres of coverage is the minimum for the long-term viability of the migrating monarch population.

Monarch butterfly on milkweed plant. (Photo by Glenda C. Booth)

Monarch Waystations

All along their migratory journey, monarchs need food and habitat and many devotees are planting monarch-friendly gardens and getting their gardens certified as monarch waystations. The 21,908 certified gardens provide nectar for migratory monarchs and are what are called “host plants” for monarch larvae or caterpillars. Host plants generally are the plants where butterflies lay eggs and the plants that butterfly caterpillars eat. Most butterfly caterpillars feed on specific plant species. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed and only milkweed. Without milkweed, they cannot complete their life cycle. So for butterfly gardeners, a “munched” plant is a good sign!

Duncan Library’s certified Monarch Waystation. (Photo by Glenda C. Booth)

Butterfly Gardening

Butterfly gardens are springing up all over, in backyards, in schoolyards, at the American Horticultural Society’s River Farm in Mount Vernon and even at Fort Belvoir. Four Mile Run Park and Burgundy Farm Country Day School have certified Monarch Waystations.

Cindy Wackerbarth runs the local Monarch Teacher Network and explains why.

“The monarch experience has been spiritual, practical, fun and something so special to share with children and adults alike,” Wackerbarth said. “It has strengthened my resolve and given me a continuing larger purpose. It is not just about a butterfly. It is about sustainability for all living things which extends to clean water, clean air, good food, farming and more.”

A butterfly garden can be any size, from a window box to a multi-acre field. The key to butterfly gardening is planting appropriate plants.

“Selecting plants that will feed butterflies while also encouraging them to stick around for a while, laying eggs and creating a new generation of butterflies, is your goal,” advises the North American Butterfly Association’s website. “To do this, you will need to choose plants that fall into two groups: nectar plants that will provide adult butterflies with energy and caterpillar food plants that will feed caterpillars. With careful selection from these two groups, your garden will provide for the entire life cycle of butterflies.”

NABA recommends researching plants before shopping because most vendors do not label plants as native or non-native and may mislabel plants as “butterfly-friendly.” Most experts recommend planting a variety of nectar and host plants to attract a variety of butterfly species. Also, trees and shrubs can provide roost sites and shelter from the wind and predators.

Most suburban landscapes of manicured grass and non-native ornamental plants are not very hospitable to native insects.

In his book, Dr. Doug Tallamy puts it this way: “We have allowed alien plants to replace natives all over the country. Our native animals and plants cannot adapt to this gross and completely unnatural manipulation of their environment in time to negate the consequences. Their only hope for a sustainable future is for us to intervene to right the wrongs that we have perpetrated. In order to let nature take its course, we must first recreate nature.”

Many gardeners are intervening by creating butterfly gardens to support native insects and especially to sustain the spectacular monarch migration phenomenon.

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