A Natural Landscape For The Butterflies

Many of our yards in the Chautauqua Watershed are becoming bad places for animals to live. Things that I took for granted growing up are disappearing from our cities and towns. The bright colors of butterflies are a much rarer sight. There is only a faded twinkle of a firefly on a warm summer night. Even worms are harder for some folks to find.

Part of the reason for this, at least for the butterflies, is the plants we landscape with. Many people know that butterflies love flowers and will plant butterfly bush and sedum to attract butterflies. What many people don’t know is that most caterpillars are fussy eaters and will only eat certain foods.

Monarch Butterflies only eat milkweed as caterpillars. Baltimore Checkerspots prefer a plant called turtlehead. The American Snout caterpillar only eats a tree called hackberry. Red Admiral caterpillars, which were out in abundance earlier this spring, only eat nettles and false nettles. The Great Spangled Fritillary caterpillar only eats violets.

You get the point. There are more than 70 kinds of butterflies in the region, most of which I am just learning. Not all of them are quite as fussy as the ones I just mentioned, but most still only eat a very few plants as caterpillars.

Put yourself in a butterfly’s six little shoes for a moment and think about the challenge they have. Imagine flying over a city or town looking for food. Ooooh … there are lots of pretty flowers in many people’s yards. The butterfly can flit about and find nectar for its food almost anywhere. But that is not all they need.

Imagine a female butterfly flying over that same town heavy with eggs. She’s looking for a stand of milkweed, or perhaps nettle or maybe a nice hackberry tree. Have you got any of those in your yard?

To a butterfly looking for a plant to lay eggs on, most yards might as well be a desert. The plants in many yards have traveled around the world to get there. They come from Asia and Europe and from points farther south. In many yards, there is no place for a poor butterfly to lay her eggs. The patches of wild plants are getting harder to find, replaced by a landscape that is hostile to caterpillars.

To balance that, add some native plants to your yard. Let some violets grow. Plant a patch of milkweed for the Monarch to lay eggs on. Find some turtlehead for the Baltimore Checkerspot. If you have to plant a tree, plant a native tree that the caterpillars can feed on. The leaves of our native oaks may be eaten by the caterpillars more than 100 different butterflies and moths, whereas a Norway maple from Europe is eaten by almost nothing, even though they have been here for hundreds of years.

There are some good local nurseries that can help you plant some of your yard with plants for the butterflies to eat and some wonderful books on butterfly gardening that give information on caterpillar food.

It only takes a few plants to give the butterflies what they need. Perhaps then we will see more butterflies winging around the area. Oh, and don’t forget, if you plant caterpillar food you have to expect them to eat it. Don’t get all excited and spray poisons on the caterpillars to protect your plants. You have to let the caterpillars live if you want to see a butterfly.

Jeff Tome is a Senior Naturalist for Programs and Exhibits at the Jamestown Audubon Society and a longtime CWC volunteer and former board director. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local nonprofit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.