Category Archives: Butterflies

Oh Dear! A Deer Ate My Plants!

There is nothing more disheartening than waking up one morning to discover that deer have devoured the beautiful plants in your butterfly garden. All the expense and work you put into your garden disappeared overnight.

Short of installing a nine-foot-tall fence, there are few sure cures for the problem, but planting things deer don’t prefer to eat will help. If deer are a problem in your area you will need to plant deer-resistant plants. Here are twelve plants that deer typically will pass by in your garden in favor of tastier treats down the road.

American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) on Verbena on a Stick (Verbena bonariensis)

Verbena on a Stick (aka Tall Verbena)
Verbena bonariensis, zones 7-10

Verbena bonariensis can be grown from seed and blooms the first year. The tall stems are topped with clusters of rosy-purple flowers make it a wonderful addition to any garden. It’s a host plant for the Common Buckeye butterfly. Verbena bonariensis is hardy in zones 7-10, and can be grown as a self-sowing annual in colder regions. It’s very vigorous and drought tolerant. Purchase seeds here.

Cone Flower (Echinacea purpurea) is a butterfly magnet!

Coneflower
Echinacea purpurea, zones 3 to 9

This native wildflower is a must for every butterfly garden! Coneflower is easy to grow and provides masses of tall purple blooms. The daisy-like blooms of the coneflower will also attract bees and birds from miles around, and the hummingbirds love them too! Purple Coneflowers have long been known to be one of the most effective plants at helping to establish butterfly populations as well. Purchase plants here.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on Liatris.

Blazing Star (aka Gay Flower)
Liatris spp., zones 4-9

These native prairie plants add beautiful spikes of color to the garden. This flower has an interesting blooming habit, as it blooms from the top down on the flower stalk rather than from the bottom up. This makes it a great choice for cut flowers. Blazing star is a favorite nectar crop for monarchs and many other butterflies and hummingbirds. Once the blooms are done, it makes a great snack for finches, too. Find Liatris bulbs here.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) on Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).

Anise Hyssop
Agastache foeniculum, zones 4-10

Anise Hyssop has very showy flowers, fragrant foliage and seems to be of little interest to deer. It self-seeds readily and often blooms the first year. It’s a bee, hummingbird, and butterfly magnet and makes an excellent addition to herb gardens, borders, perennial gardens, and prairies. It’s super heat and drought tolerant and blooms for weeks in late summer. Plus it’s a great cut flower.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) on Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum).

Joe Pye Weed
Eupatorium purpureum,  zones 4 to 9

This tall, native perennial prefers moist soil where it can stretch up to 9 feet high. The clusters of pink-purple blooms smell faintly of vanilla. Joe Pye-weed blooms well into fall, bringing the season’s last butterflies to your yard.

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sipping nectar from Scarlet Bee Balm (Monarda didyma). By Joe Schneid, Louisville, Kentucky – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6691558

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) on Wild Bergamot, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69205264

Bee Balm
Monarda didyma, Monarda fitulosa, Monarda punctata, Monarda citriodora, zones 4 to 9

Butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy its rich nectar of this native perennial. The tubular flowers are typically shades of red, purple, pink and white, and resemble small fireworks. They are late blooming, adding lots of color to the garden when other flowers have finished. Find plants here.

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia).

Russian Sage
Perovskia atriplicifolia, zones 4-9

Russian sage has fragrant foliage and attracts hummingbirds, honey bees, and butterflies. This is a tough plant that needs little care. This is a vigorous, hardy, heat-loving and drought tolerant plant that will fill the garden with lavender-purple flowers that bloom from summer until fall. Purchase plants here.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias Tuberosa).

Butterfly Weed
Asclepias tuberosa, zones 3 to 9

Butterfly Weed is not only a host plants for Monarch butterflies, but the flowers it produces are also attractive to many other kinds of butterflies. This resilient plant is a must-have addition to any garden. It tolerates dry soil and prefers plenty of sunshine. Click here to purchase plants.

A Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)  enjoys the bloom of Cosmos.

Cosmos
Cosmos spp., zones-5-11

Cosmos are easy to grow from seed and easy to maintain. They come in a variety of colors and are gorgeous to use a cut flower as well. I planted cosmos for the first time last summer in my garden and I was delighted how these delicate blooms attracted a variety of butterflies. Find Seeds here.

A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sipping nectar from a Black & Blue (Salvia guaranitica). Photo by Kathy Greene Jones. (Used with permission.)

Salvia
Salvia leucantha, Salvia coccinea, Salvia guaranitica, Salvia greggii, Salvia azurea, Salvia elegans, zones 7 to 10

If you want to attract pollinators to your garden, plant salvia. While its fragrant foliage is not preferred by deer, all sorts of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds are dazzled by its blooms which appear around early summer. There are many different salvia species are excellent for butterflies and hummingbirds. Most salvias are drought tolerant once established. Find seeds and plants here.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) “Miss Huff” Lantana.

Lantana
Lantana camara ‘Miss Huff’, zones 7-10 (annual in colder zones)

All lantanas are a wonderful addition to your pollinator garden, but my personal favorite is “Miss Huff”. It is the most cold hardy lantana known – established clumps have survived temperatures as low as 0°F. Pink, orange and yellow flowers bloom continuously from early summer to frost attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. It is drought tolerant and does well in clay soils. Find seeds and plants here.

There are other strategies you can use to keep the deer at bay. One friend of mine uses a blast of water to scare the deer away when they come into her yard. She installed a motion activated water blaster. She says it has saved her flowers for the butterflies and hummingbirds.

You can purchase a Hoont Cobra Yard and Garden Motion Activated Water Blaster at https://amzn.to/2VuJFnB

An ultrasonic animal repellent is a less-invasive way to deter deer and other critters from venturing into the garden.

Diaotec Ultrasonic Animal Repellent Solar Powered Waterproof Outdoor Animal Repeller Deterrent are highly rated at https://amzn.to/2VwT0vc

You can also apply proven deer repellents. Deer repellent products are effective in obstructing a deer’s sense of smell and taste. Deer Out is ideal repellents to apply to your plants because they affect both senses. These repellents emit a scent that reminds deer of a decaying animal. This signals deer and other animals to vacate the yard. Additionally, the repellent tastes like garlic which makes it unappealing to deer.

Whatever you do to deter deer, don’t let the deer deter you from planting your garden for butterflies and hummingbirds!

Click here for a more comprehensive list of deer-resistant plants.

 

Trees for Butterflies

When planning a butterfly garden one typically thinks of planting flowers. But did you know that trees also attract butterflies? Some flowering trees provide nectar for the adult butterfly. And then there are trees that provide food for caterpillars. There are many trees you can plant in your garden that are host plants for butterflies. A host plant is a specific plant that provides food for developing larva.

 

 

Brenda Dziedzic, author of Butterflies in the Garden, has created an amazing butterfly habitat in her small back yard in Michigan. She does not have enough room to plant many trees so she plants trees in large containers. Since this limits the root growth it will limit how big the tree will grow.

Please note, you should plant those trees native to your area that are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions where they naturally occur.

The Wonder of Monarchs in Mexico

The Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies that have spent the winter in Mexico have now started their northbound trek back to the United States and Canada. People who have visited the sites where the butterflies spend the winter have reported seeing tens of thousands of butterflies.

My friend, Jacqui Knight, just recently returned and shared with me her experience. “I was in Mexico two years ago to see the Monarchs. I was amazed at how many Monarchs we could see in the trees–the experience was mind-blowing. And so I was completely amazed at just how many more Monarchs I saw on this trip.

Jacqui Knight, from New Zealand, is the founder of Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust.

“The day after we arrived, we rode up Cerro Pelón, and halfway up the mountain, the horses stopped in a shady passage. Suddenly I realized we were surrounded by a stream of Monarchs, a constant stream, flying towards us and further down the mountain. The stream joined up with another stream as the Monarchs surged down the mountain, looking for nectar sources further down. Some of them stopped nearby to sip at Salvias (Salvia spp.) and other wildflowers beside the track.

“We rode on and found the Monarchs in a clearing in huge bunches in the trees. It was a thrill when something prompted the Monarchs to burst into life. Looking up at the blue sky it was as if I was standing next to a huge bonfire with ashes littering the sky, falling around us.

“And at the very top, the trees were thick with Monarchs. These were harder to see as they sat, wings closed in the trees. But we could see them and hear them: the gentle swish of a wonder of wings in the pines and firs. I had never imagined that I would see so many!

Photo by Brenda Dziedzic, author of Learn About Butterflies in the Garden. (Used with permission.)

“The next day down in the village of Macheros we saw Monarchs flying everywhere looking to top up on their reserves before they began the journey northwards, and they were puddling thickly in a stream near some houses… so many Monarchs that you could hardly see the stream,” Jacqui wrote as she ended her description of viewing the overwintering Monarchs up close.

In support of Jacqui’s description, the World Wildlife Fund, which monitors Monarch numbers, reported, “The area of forest occupied by hibernating Monarch butterflies in Mexico has increased by 144% in relation to last year’s survey—the biggest growth in the past 12 years. A new colony of Monarchs was also found in the Nevado de Toluca, State of Mexico.” This is good news for these North American Monarchs and for those of us who have made efforts to help this iconic butterfly. But we still have a long way to go!

The eastern North American Monarch population estimate for the winter of 2018-2019 reports a population size of 6.05 hectares. Read more: https://tinyurl.com/y55swqf2

But the news is not so positive for those Monarchs that overwinter in California. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit group that conducts a yearly census of the western Monarch, stated the population reached historic lows in 2018, an estimated 86% decline from the previous year. That combined with a 97% decline in the total population since the 1980s, this year’s count is “potentially catastrophic,” according to biologist Emma Pelto. Scientists estimate that the Monarch butterfly population in western North America has a 72 percent chance of becoming near extinct in 20 years if the Monarch population trend is not reversed. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/science/monarch-butterfly-california.html)

Just the other day I was visiting the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, when a man standing next to me said, “I need to go and buy some Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) The Monarch butterflies will soon be here in Texas.” Then this stranger went on and told me all about how the Monarchs will need Milkweed on which to lay their eggs. This made my heart sing! What if everyone had this same enthusiasm for planting Milkweed for the Monarchs!

If we are going to save the wonder of the North American Monarchs, we need to plant Milkweed! So let us all show this same enthusiasm and plant Milkweed! To help you get started, I am giving away free Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds. Send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Suzanne Tilton, Butterfly Lady, PO Box 971263, El Paso, Texas, 79997.

Spread the message with this “Plant Milkweed T-shirt by Butterfly Lady: https://amzn.to/2PFvZn4

 

Beautiful Blue Morpho

The Blue Morpho butterfly is probably one of the best known and most popular worldwide. It is particularly known for its luminescent blue wings. The brilliant blue coloring is a result of the microscopic scales on the backs of their wings, which reflect light.

With wings spanning from five to eight inches, the Blue Morpho is one of the largest butterflies in the world.

The Morpho is a highly diversified species with more than twenty subspecies. It is found from Mexico and throughout Central and South America and is endemic to Trinidad and Tobago. Located primarily in rainforests, however, the species can be found in habitats ranging from mountains, ravines, cleared lands, and streams.

Display case of the many different species of Morho species. (Photo by Terri Wilhelm. Used with permission.)

Many butterfly houses have these magnificent butterflies on display. The first encounter with a Blue Morpho was at Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, Florida. I was enchanted with their brilliant blue color and mesmerized as I watched them fly gracefully throughout the exhibit. I immediately fell in love!

The undersides of the blue morpho’s wings are dull brown, with eyespots (ocelli) and other gray, black, and red markings. The larger eyespots may help deter predators, who at first glance could think the eyes belong to a larger creature.

The cryptic coloration on the underside of the wings provides camouflage when the Morpho’s wings are closed.

As much as I love watching these wonderful butterflies in captivity, it does not compare to seeing them in the wild. A few years ago during a trip to Costa Rica, I was walking down a road when a flicker of blue glided past me. I started to run to keep up with the butterfly. The erratic flight pattern makes it quite difficult to follow. This is on purpose because this is how they defend themselves against predators. The Blue Morpho has what is known as a “flashing” defense. When in flight, its wings appear to flash from vivid blue to dull brown. The butterfly seems to continuously disappear and reappear again, making it very hard to track through the jungle.

The Morpho butterfly does not feed on the nectar from flowers but rather feeds on the juices of fermenting fruit. I was able to lure butterflies to the garden by setting out fruit in a bird bath.

Blue Morpho butterflies are farmed raised and then the live pupae are shipped all over the world for butterfly exhibits. Many people raise these butterflies in captivity to be used for collectors in display cases. Their wings are also used to make jewelry. This can be disturbing for many people but I would like to point out that the butterflies you see in boxes or in jewelry were not snatched from the wild population, but raised on a butterfly farm for the specific purpose of being sold as what is known as “dry stock”.

If you want to see these brilliant blue beauties you can travel to Costa Rica or your nearest tropical butterfly exhibit. You can click here to see a list of tropical butterfly houses in the United States and Canada.

Click here to see photos of the lifecycle of the Blue Morpho.

Morpho T-Shirt in Baby Blue. Click Here or on the photo to see more and to make it yours.

Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia)

“Do you have a favorite butterfly?” I often get asked this question. I love all butterflies but I have to say that the Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia), has always been my favorite. These graceful butterflies hold a special place in my heart because they have unique behaviors that distinguish them from other butterflies.

Zebra Longwing is found across South and Central America and as far north as southern Texas and peninsular Florida; there are migrations north into other North American states in the warmer months.

Most butterflies and moths rely on sugar-laden nectar or fruit to provide the energy they need. Zebra Longwings not only sip nectar from flowers but they feast on pollen. Pollen contains much more protein than can be found in normal butterfly diets. The extra nutrients allow these Zebra Longwings to lay more eggs and to live as long as six months as adults, rather than the few weeks most butterfly species live.

Zebra Longwing butterflies collect pollen on their proboscis. Note the yellow powder collected on the coiled proboscis.

Another unique characteristic of these butterflies is that they roost in large groups at night. These communal colonies can range from a few individuals to 30 butterflies or more. Roosting together provides protection from predators and retains warmth. The butterflies return to the exact same spot to settle down every night. Groups have a social hierarchy that allows the oldest butterflies to pick the best sleeping spots before the others bed down around them. The older butterflies of the group also give the younger ones a nudge to get going in the mornings.

Zebra Longwings are a social species and snuggle together in groups at night to keep warm and to protect each other from predators.

Apparently, these delicate butterflies memorize locations of their preferred flowers on which they feed and plan the most efficient route by which to visit their nectar and pollen sources. I observed this behavior last summer in my Florida garden. I planted various flowers in containers along the wooden pool deck in the back yard. The butterflies’ roost was located in an oak tree about 75 feet away. Each morning, around 10:00, they would leave the roost and fly toward my garden. They began feeding on Mexican sunflowers planted along the south side of the deck and then moved north visiting each container of flowers in the order they were placed on the deck. They ended up feeding on the zinnias, which were planted in rows, traveling down the row of flowers. From there they flew out into the fields nearby where Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) and Corkystem Passionflower (Passiflora suberosa) grew wild.

The Zebra Longwings in my Florida garden first nectar on the Mexican Sunflowers (Tithonia spp.) then feed on Purple Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), trailing Lantana (Lantana camara), and onto the red Pentas (Penta lanceolata).

Female Zebra Longwings lay their eggs on Passion Vines (Passiflora spp.), but their favorite seems to be Corkystem Passionflower and Maypop (Passiflora incarnata). The females deposit their eggs on the tendrils and the tip of the leaves, usually in clusters.  In the first few days, the caterpillars are gregarious, but they quickly break out to feed on their own.  Passion vines contain toxic compounds that are ingested by the caterpillars making the caterpillars, as well as the adult butterflies, a poisonous meal for predators. The white or yellow stripes and spots on the adults’ wings and body serve as a warning signal to potential predators of the butterflys’ unpalatable and poisonous nature. These bright, contrasting warning colors are known as aposematic coloration.

Females lay their eggs in clusters. The caterpillars are gregarious when they are young, but they quickly break out to feed on their own. The larvae are bright white and with rows of branching black spikes that make it difficult for predators to swallow, although the spikes are harmless to humans.

A few hours before eclosion (emergence from chrysalis), females release a pheromone  that attracts males. As a female gets ready to emerge from her chrysalis, males will begin to swarm around her, jostling and flapping wings to push each other aside. The winner of this scuffle mates with the female before allowing her time to expand and dry her wings. The male passes a nutrient-rich spermatophore to the female which reduces her attractiveness to future mates. Apparently, this mating behavior, referred to as pupal rape‘, is beneficial to the survival of the species by allowing the female to go straight to laying eggs, not having to exhaust energy in ritualistic mating practices.

Two male Zebra Longwings (Heliconius charithonia) hang on either side of a chrysalis. The male butterflies can sense that the pupa inside is a female and they will battle each other by spreading their wings and trying to intimidate the other to fly off. (Photo by Jay Paredes. Used with permission.)

I find Zebra Longwings so fascinating. I feel so blessed when these beautiful, striped butterflies grace my garden!