Butterflies work magic in the garden. Described by poet Robert Frost as "flowers that fly and all but sing," they're the quintessential accent note. Monarchs, swallowtails and many other winged beauties bring colorful life to Midwest gardens. Chances are, growing plenty of flowers will draw some butterflies without any extra preparation. But why rely on chances? Create a paradise for them. It's easy.
A butterfly garden can be as large or as small as your space and energy allow. Even a few pots filled with butterfly favorites should be enough to produce some of the best shows you'll see all summer.
First, create a friendly environment. Choose a sunny spot protected from wind, which can blow butterflies off course. Any flower that you find fragrant and colorful will draw adult butterflies, too. Add a rock or two, so your winged friends can bask in the sun. Don't forget a drinking fountain: Fill a large saucer with moist sand, so butterflies can sip.
Along with pleasing adult butterflies, be sure your garden offers "happy meals" for their kids. Like humans, butterfly babies tend to be picky. Many types will eat only one kind of plant. They'd rather die -- and often do -- than eat anything else, so you should provide the right munchies.
When the time comes to lay eggs, monarch mothers look primarily for various forms of milkweed or butterfly weed (Asclepias). Black swallowtail moms hunt for dill, fennel or parsley.
When the eggs hatch, the hungry caterpillars emerge right where their mothers planned. Immediately they become eating machines, and you'll notice some jagged holes in the leaves of the plants where the caterpillars hatched. Before you know it, only leafless stalks remain.
Fighting back with pesticides is, of course, out of the question. Remember: This is supposed to be a salad bar. Instead, try hiding caterpillars' favorite foods behind other plants, where you won't see the damage. Plant swamp milkweed behind joe-pye weed, for instance. That way when the orange-and-black adults emerge from their protective covering (the chrysalis) and stay to sip nectar from both of those plants, everyone can enjoy the show.
Butterflies can't hover like hummingbirds, so be sure to include flowers that provide good landing pads. Lantanas, with their dense clusters of tiny tubular blossoms, are good choices, as are zinnias, which sprout flat, daisylike blooms.
To attract butterflies, you don't need fancy hybrid plants touted in garden catalogs for their double blossoms. The overlapping petals just get in the butterflies' way when they're trying to sip nectar through their thin, strawlike tongues. Midwest native flowers are often the best fare for our region's flutterers. Consult the list at right for some surefire pleasers.