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My Butterfly Stomach is in Knots

My butterfly stomach is in knots!

Is this you: I love to see butterflies in the garden, but not all types, just pretty ones, that don’t have grubs or larvae that damage or eat my plant’s excessively, or at all.’

I tell myself and the world that I love nature, yet as a gardener I routinely use insecticides to kill aphids on my roses, mealy bugs and scale insects on my cacti and succulents, scariad flies on my seedling propagation trays and then there are the slugs and snails, so the list goes on .

Interestingly, my wife Michele routinely frowns at me as we leave our local garden centre with my arms full of more chemicals to kill plants and animals than I ever leave with living things. Michele will also debate strongly that we can or should try to get by with less killing in our garden paradise and that it is incongruous with our personal pro-nature based ethos. However she will reluctantly call me on occasions to ‘deal with’ problems she can’t manage by herself, especially when it is with her favourite plants. None the less this quandary of ‘to kill or let live’ is not a topic I take lightly and often has me reflect on the rights and wrongs of my ways. This is best reflected with my love of butterflies since a child.

We now have a large area of our garden that is designated for birds and butterflies, where potentially harmful chemicals are avoided. It is called the ‘Butterfly Lawn’, which is a small grassed area, for a table and chairs surrounded by large terraced garden beds, filled to the brim with flowers throughout the year. Plant selection for this garden involved a great deal of research and experimentation and after some years has now matured into what we are very happy with. Michele and I now sit in the centre and while sharing a cup of tea or a glass of wine, we really do get entertained by an impressive array of frequenting wildlife, which includes a plethora of assorted butterflies, some rarely seen on most gardens.

If you were to ask me what plants attract butterflies best, or what great advice could I give from my years of interest and experience with this topic— you are not going to like the various answers I give, and yet I present to you the very best facts and figures, in the most helpful way I can.

First time interest in butterfly gardening is best experienced by planting a punnet of cabbage or broccoli or cauliflower seedlings. No other plants can guarantee such immediate proof of your success. And in the coming weeks as these plants grow, you will be amused to find that even if you have missed a butterfly’s actual visit, you will always find evidence that they have been. Eggs laid by them all over your plants prove that butterflies were happy to have your garden to visit. Within days or weeks caterpillars will be everywhere happily munching on their gift from you. School students should all experience this wonder of nature as it is a practical lesson in biological ecosystems. It only takes a few weeks for caterpillars to reach maturity and transform into chrysalis. This stage of metamorphosis lasts about two weeks and can be taken indoors to observe pristine butterflies hatch out before your eyes.

Perhaps another important lesson comes into play if you decide to share in the eating of your vegetables. Most often, so many butterflies visit and lay so many eggs that your plants can easily be over run, or over eaten. Plants leaves become full of holes, misshapen and unattractive to gardeners and very much disapproved off on the kitchen. A ‘student of life’ can next try and grow a few of these same vegetables, but this time only for human consumption (and without holes like a piece of Swiss cheese). The almost daily visit by butterflies laying eggs will soon try your patience, with the eventual task of removing small caterpillars as you find them eating away. Lots of organic vegetable growers routinely remove caterpillars by hand on a daily basis and (sssshhh... crush them between fingers).

Having had plenty of such biological life lessons, I eventually moved this butterfly onto my dislike list and looked it up in my books to find that it is commonly called a Cabbage White butterfly and that it is an unwelcome pest of most farmers and gardeners. Also that this species, from the Northern Hemisphere is not naturally Australian but has since arriving here its population has soared into the billions and is not likely to become extinct, unlike some of our native species. So now I see the Cabbage White as a pest that I justify for removal or extermination.

Next most worthwhile plants to have in your garden to attract butterflies are Lantana (Lantana camara), Buddleia or Butterfly Bush (Buddleja species), Swan Plant or Milk Weed (Gomphocarpus fruticosus formerly Asclepias fruticosa). These three plants are recorded throughout history as absolute sure-fire winners for attracting lots of very attractive butterflies. Numerous generations of gardeners globally have recommended these three plants that have consequently been grown and finally escaping the garden fence into bushland. These plants were, as it turns out, not only excellent at attracting butterflies but also at growing, adapting and spreading fast to become major pest weeds in many countries. So tread carefully here if choosing to grow these.

The Swan Plant above deserves another special mention here because it primarily attracts Monarch Butterflies. There are two species of Monarchs commonly found in Australia; one of which one is referred to by some people as the African Monarch; the other larger of the two is commonly referred to as the American Monarch (Danaus plexippus). This latter butterfly is brightly coloured and when content, it flies or glides in a very graceful manner. It is famous all over the world, primarily for its unique (among butterflies) migratory path between Canada and Mexico where it spends its winter months in a single mass swarm of many millions of individuals. Native to the Americas it was introduced to Australia in the 1870s, along with its larval specific dietary requirements— the Swan Plant! Once abundant in its homelands, a major decline of this butterflies populations in most of its breeding grounds has been reported in 2013. ‘Researchers in Montreal estimate that the monarch population in eastern Canada is down by about 90 percent, reports CTV News.USA "The situation right now is dire," one entomologist told the station.’

In Australia we have had a love/ hate relationship with this non-native butterfly, that goes hand in hand with our love and, now hate relationship with the Swan Plant that have both host plant and insect regarded as alien pests by the government and environmentalists. However, if the American Monarch declines further in its homelands or dies out altogether then, any surviving outpost like ours, could become a national treasure, worth preserving. I am very fortunate to have both Monarch species visit my garden, most years. It is truly a wondrous and graceful creature.

A little further down the best butterfly plant list come citrus trees or succulent sedums. Citrus trees attract fancy larger native butterflies from the Swallowtail family. At least three species of Swallowtail butterfly, that are more commonly found in tropical parts of Queensland or New South Wales, follow southerly crops of citrus plantings which are the food plant for their larvae, hence are now sometime found as far south as Melbourne, Victoria. Introduced sedums flower readily and heavily and some species of this genus like Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ are exceptional at attracting any butterfly in sight yet won’t be laid upon or eaten by the larval stage of a butterfly’s life cycle. This is because these sedums primarily attract with a gift of ‘nectar only’ to butterflies to drink, with nothing to eat for their larvae. Therefore planting an assortment of Sedum species is a good way to not have to worry about any caterpillars eating your garden treasures. Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too!

At this point it is worth pointing out that butterflies have two distinct needs from your garden, one is nectar /moisture to drink for energy and the second is leaves suitable for their larvae to eat. Their two separate needs are rarely provided on the same plant. Further; plants with nectar in flowers will attract most butterflies, but only during a short season while the plant is in flower so try to have long lasting flowers or a long flowering season as these points are worth researching well. But to maximize a butterfly’s visit you have to consider and grow larval food plants simultaneously nearby. This assures a longer duration of a visit and very likely multiple, even longer return visits by the same butterfly.

Concluding any list of butterfly attracting plants (for Melbourne) that most people ask me about, there are some very nice native plants in it but they hardly compare with the success of the already mentioned non-native plant species. Australian native plants to consider include: Brachychiton species, Finger Lime, Bottlebrush, Grevillea, Melaleuca, Tea Tree, Wattle, Portulaca and Mistletoe.

Native Mistletoe plants attract a range of less common, but highly attractive native butterflies. These plants can grow on Wattle or Eucalypt trees, thereby doubling the flower and food range for butterflies and their larvae. Trouble is, Mistletoes are parasitic, so generally regarded unfairly as pest plants to be removed from gardens.

The single most significant plant of the above native list would be Portulaca species. Both native and non-native species are now widespread across most Australian larger cities and urban areas where they grow and flower throughout warmer weather and seasons. Many (mostly smaller) native butterflies and birds seek out these plants when in leaf, flower or seed, which is at least 3 months of the year. In some locations Portulaca oleracea and Portulaca pilosa can be with flowers and seed simultaneously for up to 5 months or more— that’s a very long season of abundance for native wildlife. Oh, but I forgot to mention, that both of these Portulaca species are on most pest weed lists, so tread carefully if you chose to grow any.

In fact tread carefully, as several of the plants discussed in this article have poisonous sap or leaves e.g. the Swan Plant which can only be eaten by Monarchs larvae which in turn carry the poison into adult butterflies which become distasteful to birds, or will kill them if consumed. So you see plants often have repelling chemicals to stop or kill creatures that try to eat them. Insects too have chemicals inside them to kill yet others, for the same reason. And I too, justify using chemicals to kill or repel, for my parts of the garden I wish to have for my very own.

Many different paths can lead you to having a butterfly-filled garden, I have chosen mine!

This article in this series was first published in the Royal Horticultural Society of Victoria’s printed quarterly magazine: Gardener’s Gazette autumn 2015.


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