- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Eric Raun of Silver Spring spends hours in his back yard, watching for butterflies. But he doesn’t leave it to chance. To attract the winged creatures, he created a butterfly garden, using the plants butterflies use for nectar and laying eggs. Caterpillars also use various plants in the garden for food.

In 1993, Mr. Raun’s first year of butterfly gardening, he saw 14 butterfly species on his property. Since then, he has added many plants to the area, including marigolds, Brazilian verbena, red clover and bloodflower, which have attracted up to 40 butterfly species in a single season.

“If you put the plants in, the butterflies will come,” Mr. Raun says. “It’s just amazing to see them. They are very beautiful. They all have different patterns. It’s neat to see them fly.”

Butterfly gardens usually start to bloom in May and are in full swing by July. Most of the plants continue to attract butterflies until midfall. The gardens, which easily can be maintained in a back yard, are habitats for the fragile creatures. They also provide the opportunity for butterfly lovers to observe the insects.

“Just having a few plants enables more butterflies to live in the area and increase the population of butterflies,” Mr. Raun says. “It helps them live longer.”

The ideal garden for butterflies contains plenty of sunshine, shelter from the wind, a reliable source of nectar, host plants for egg laying and for caterpillars to eat, protection from predators, and water. It also should have a combination of annuals, perennials, trees and woody shrubs that provide a suitable environment for the various stages of the life cycle of the insects.

An adult butterfly, which eats nectar, will lay an egg on a host plant. The egg hatches into a caterpillar or larva, which often enjoys eating the host plant. The caterpillar forms the chrysalis or pupa, usually on a twig. The chrysalis then hatches into a butterfly.

Mr. Raun’s favorite stage is observing the chrysalis open into a beautiful butterfly. On the surface, the chrysalis may look dead, but a creature with wings of intricate designs and intense colors is being formed inside.

“It looks like there’s nothing in there,” he says. “It looks so dry. In that sense, it’s like rising from the dead when the butterfly emerges.”

After emerging from the chrysalis, the adult butterfly eats the nectar from plants for food. Butterfly bush, Mr. Raun’s favorite plant in his garden, is used by butterflies for this purpose. It’s a woody shrub that comes in several colors, including white, pink and purple. It withstands droughts well and retains some foliage in winter.

Other plants used by butterflies for nectar include globe amaranth, oregano, white clover, garlic chives and red clover. Certain nectar plants attract specific types of butterflies. For instance, to attract swallowtail butterflies, plant butterfly bush, common milkweed, joe-pye weed, oregano and Oriental lilies. For hairstreak butterflies, plant garlic chives, heath aster and late-flowering boneset.

Skipper butterflies are drawn to globe amaranth, Brazilian verbena, butterfly bush and mistflower. Great spangled fritillary butterflies like butterfly bush, butterfly weed, common milkweed and purple coneflower.

Popular host plants used by caterpillars in the garden include bronze fennel, collards, common blue violet, common lamb’s-quarters, common milkweed, hops vine, red giant mustard, parsley and white clover.

Although some of these plants are typically thought of as weeds, Desiree DiMauro of Vienna says they don’t have to take over the entire yard. She has had a butterfly garden in her back yard for two years.

“You can have a tamed look,” Ms. DiMauro says. “You can have the benefits of a butterfly garden with a border and a little bit of lawn. … It looks nice and adds to your curb appeal.”

Actually, maintaining a butterfly garden is probably easier than other more intricate endeavors, she says.

“You don’t have to be a green thumb at all because everything’s a weed,” she says. “It’s not like growing orchids. … I don’t think people realize how easy it is. After they get established, your main job is to cut them back.”

With little effort, people can actually aid the environment, Ms. DiMauro says. In fact, the National Wildlife Federation in Reston offers the Backyard Habitat Program, in which property on homes, schools and businesses are certified as environments that support wildlife. Each area needs to provide food, water, shelter and a place to raise young.

A student at George Mason University, Ms. DiMauro understands the importance of providing wildlife with the capability to flourish in developed areas. She is working on a dissertation on the effects of urbanization on butterfly diversity by studying butterfly gardens (www.butterflystudy.org). She is working on a doctorate in environmental science.

“Instead of having a lawn and puff-ball bushes, do something to help nature,” she says. “I think this is new to a lot of people.”

When acres of land are paved each year for parking lots and high-rises, animals, such as butterflies, lose their habitats. If people contribute to the environment by creating a safe haven for certain creatures, it helps preserve nature, says Barbara Farron of Springfield, who is member of the Washington Area Butterfly Club (www.vais.net/~jmfarron/). She started butterfly gardening about seven years ago.

“Think of a world without butterflies,” she says. “It would be like a world without flowers.”

By July, Mrs. Farron says, her yard looks like a “butterfly airport.”

“They are constantly coming and going,” she says. “It’s spectacular. It really does work.”

Butterfly enthusiasts who don’t consider themselves gardeners often are tempted to embark on creating a butterfly habitat to observe the insects from a closer distance, says Denise Gibbs of Damascus. Binoculars can be used to bring the action even closer.

“Catching butterflies is frowned upon these days unless you are doing scientific work,” she says. “Instead of going out searching for butterflies, plant the plants you need and lure them to you.”


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