Harriet Busse of Council Bluffs didn't set out to be a butterfly gardener. But she has learned a lot.
Butterflies want sweet nectar, a mud puddle (for its nutrients), a flat rock to soak in the sun and a place to lay their eggs.
Many of the plants butterflies visit already were familiar to Busse, and are among the perennials, annuals, shrubs and trees preferred by many homeowners and gardeners.
Every Friday morning, Busse and six to 12 other master gardeners work outside the butterfly pavilion at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo.
They mulch. They pull weeds. They plant annuals and perennials. The difference is, the plants in this garden are known butterfly magnets.
In this area bordering the giraffe compound is a garden full of butterfly bushes and butterfly weeds, coneflowers, lilies, parsley, dill, columbine, pansies, New Guinea impatiens, wisteria and trumpet vines. It's a banquet fit for a monarch and any other butterfly that happens by.
As with any garden, the chores are endless in the growing season — pulling volunteer tree seedlings, mulching and weeding.
“A lot of us do plants because we love them, and they just happen to attract butterflies,” said Kathleen Cue, an extension horticulturist for Douglas and Sarpy Counties and a master gardener program leader.
This public butterfly garden is a great way for people to see what can be grown to attract the insects.
For those who have more than a casual interest in butterflies, Cue recommends the four-page Butterfly Gardening NebGuide as a resource for planning a butterfly garden.
The University of Nebraska publication is free and has an extensive list of plants that attract butterflies. The guide details the life cycle, or metamorphosis, of the butterfly and includes the types of butterflies, moths and skippers commonly seen in the Midlands.
“I follow that NebGuide,” said Kathy Jeffers, an Omahan who also heads a crew of master gardeners at the Eastern Nebraska 4-H Center near Schramm Aquarium. One plant not mentioned in the guide is a butterfly favorite: the annual lantana.
“Lantana is one of our draws,” Jeffers said. “It blooms its heart out.”
Buddleia, or butterfly bush, is on the list. As the name suggests, it's a butterfly favorite. While the blooms can range in color from white to nearly black, butterflies seem to prefer the white, bright colors, Jeffers said.
When planning a butterfly garden, perennials, biennials, annuals, herbs, shrubs and trees are all important. Perennials ensure nectar for butterflies year after year. Common annuals, herbs, biennials (bloom every other year) and shrubs guarantee nectar and the larvae's food supply.
If you have an herb garden, plant dill and parsley together, Busse said. Butterflies are attracted to both plants as a place to lay their eggs. As the larvae eat their way out of the eggs, they feed on the plant as they grow into caterpillars.
Butterfly milkweed is another way to give butterflies a bit of heaven. But Jeffers cautioned that gardeners should know which kind of milkweed they want.
The type to look for is butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). It produces yellow, orange or red blooms in June and July and grows to about 24 inches tall. While it is a native plant, it can be difficult to transplant. It does best in a sunny border where it has some protection from wind, mowers and weed trimmers.
Two other milkweeds are less desirable in the home garden. Common milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) is pink, grows to 28 inches tall, blooms May through August, but can look weedy. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) has pink and white blooms, grows to 48 inches tall and blooms in July and August. As the name suggests, this one tends to grow in moist areas.
Petunias, marigolds and zinnias are some of the most common annuals homeowners use in borders, beds and containers. Butterflies love them.
Shrubs that are blooming now or have bloomed early this year — lilac, mock orange, spirea and viburnum — also attract butterflies.
Other than dill and parsley, herbs that attract butterflies include mint, oregano, sweet fennel, chives and catnip.
By working at the zoo's butterfly garden, “I've learned more for my own garden,” Busse said.
She leaves the somewhat prolific butterfly weeds that come up in her flower beds.
“And I used to see caterpillars or larvae and I'd be concerned.”
Now she knows she was witnessing part of the butterflies' life cycle.
“It's a new awareness. These little caterpillars were not a bad thing.”
So she passes along just one more caution to any future butterfly gardener: Don't apply insecticides.
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