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Butterfly Gardens & Kids

by Bee Mohn

Catie and Noel Sme, teenage sisters, dip into a stash of colorful annuals and herbs at Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay. They choose pink and purple-blooming ones and arrange them inside an old tire filled with soil. They remove the pots, add more soil, and water-in the plants of the new butterfly garden.

Nearby, Cindy Krezel, Planting Fields development director, watched as the girls carried out her instructions. Her book, Kids'Container Gardening, gives directions on how to plant a butterfly garden.

What the girls planted:
Pentas New-Look Violet; Salvia coccinea 'Coral Nymph'; Salvia strata; Cleome; Curly parsley; Fennel

The trio planted the garden on a stretch of patchy lawn surrounded by pine trees. The garden is a butterfly oasis, offering color, scent - not necessarily fragrance as we know it - and pleasing floral architecture that entices butterflies. Larvae host plants - herbs - complete the arrangement. Females lay eggs on the herbs, which feed the caterpillars as they hatch. Krezel says otherwise, if there is no reason to stay, the butterflies just eat and run.

"Butterfly antennae pick up molecules in the air that guide them to the flowers," ys Dr. Peter Bosak, entomologist at Cape May County Department of Mosquito Control. "For a butterfly it's a small world. They're focused in on the flower."

Butterflies also feed on minerals in the soil, in horse manure, or an area of the ground with particular chemicals that they need, like salt. "I have seen clouds of butterflies around corrals where they're picking up nutrients," says Bosak. "Some are attracted to sweat chemicals. We all exude different amounts of different chemicals. It all depends on what chemical cocktail is coming from the skin."

Krezel has seen butterflies drink water from between rocks, in puddles of muddy water and even horse urine.

So why do we care if butterflies come to our garden? If the little garden created by Catie and Noel is any indication, perhaps it's simply our sense of esthetics. "It's good because the garden is pretty and also attracts butterflies," says Noel. "It makes the butterflies happy and they're pretty colors of flowers," adds Catie. And the creatures are bound to play a role in pollinating certain types of flowers.

There can be a down side though. If you grow only herbs and veggies and few flowers, butterflies may lay eggs on the foliage and move on. The eggs will hatch and the larvae will eat your plants. For instance, Black Swallowtail caterpillars love parsley and celery, the Hawk Moth demolishes tomato plants, and the Great-spangled Fritillary will eat your wild violets.

Although any movement is migratory, butterflies are not migratory in the strict sense of the word. Those that we see here in fall do fly south to Mexico, but they don't come back again. Their great grand-offspring do - five or six generations later. Each generation dies after laying eggs that hatch into caterpillars and eventually butterflies. So the cycle continues until they arrive north. "If a link in their food chain is broken anywhere along their flight path, we will lose Monarchs," says Krezel - another reason to care and plant a butterfly garden.

Some butterflies do live in New Jersey year-round. As winter approaches, these adults die and leave behind caterpillars that over-winter in a chrysalis, or eggs. The American painted lady, with a discerning diet of forget-me-not leaves, pupates inside silky nests. Different species have different over-wintering mechanisms, explains Bosak.

Krezel watched the teens discuss the garden as they worked. "It's an amazing connection that kids get from planting something and watching it grow. Kids don't have any other experience like that in their whole lives."

Great All-round Butterfly-attracting Plants:
Buddleia davidii and cultivars
Verbena bonariensis - purpletop verbena
Lantana sp.
Stachytarpheta urticifolia - blue porterweed, false vervain
Asclepias syriaca - common milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa - butterfly weed (larvae host plant)

Peter Bosak's Identification Tips:
All butterflies are adults.
There is no immature form of a butterfly except a caterpillar.
The markings on the bottoms of wings differ from markings on the tops.
Get a guide that shows wing tops and bottoms.

North American Butterfly Association:
Kids' Container Gardening; year-round projects for inside and out by Cindy Krezel (Ball Publishing) check
Lists of Regional Butterfly Info:

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published July 07, 2005

Photos to enlarge

Catie spreads out the soil.

The girls arrange the plants.


Pentas New-Look Violet and Cleome

Salvia 'Coral Nymph'

Great-spangled Fritillary on Milkweed

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