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Master Gardener: A butterfly garden

Vicky Barney
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Butterfly on a purple coneflower.
Vicky Barney/courtesy

A few years back, I planted a small garden outside my back door. I wanted to add summer color to the native chokecherry and serviceberry bushes that grow at the property’s edge. To my delight, I inadvertently started a butterfly garden.

I notice butterflies when hiking in the high country. They flutter about in a variety of colors and sizes, stopping briefly here and there, flying off before I get a good look at them. Sometimes, I see them congregating on the ground around a mud puddle. Research tells me these are mostly males, likely getting nutrition from dissolved minerals. One can learn to identify butterflies by noting size, color and pattern, and flight behavior, but to date, I can only easily recognize swallowtails and cabbage moths.  

This year, I find I am hosting a new butterfly, a fritillary perhaps? These visitors arrived in my garden in August when the nonnative purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and a native aster started blooming.  They appear to ignore other flowers nearby — black-eyed Susans, Jupiter’s beard, cosmos, even the native bee balm.  

They perch on the tall coneflowers when the sun is shining and linger, mostly one to a flower but, sometimes, sharing the bloom with another butterfly or even a bee. They hang on when the wind gusts, rocking back and forth, finishing their meal before moving on.

Well-planned butterfly gardens have host plants that provide food for caterpillars and nectar plants for adult butterflies. They have sunny spots sheltered from the wind and accessible water. A garden with masses of flowers that bloom in sequence is ideal. CSU Extension’s “Attracting Butterflies to the Garden” has more details at extension.colostate.edu/docs/pubs/insect/05504.pdf.

My garden is not well-planned, but it appears to have matured enough to provide the right environment for these butterflies. They may like the untended surrounding area that has plenty of shelter and undesirable plants like dandelions and clover. Or perhaps the small drip irrigation system installed last summer brought the butterflies. Given regular water, all the plants have grown thicker and taller, with bigger and longer-lasting blooms.

Watching butterflies lingering in my flowerbed is a treat. With more research and a bit of work, I hope to attract more butterflies to my garden next year.     

Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.


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