Who can help loving butterflies? They are nothing less than flying flowers. Would you believe that there are more than 400 species in Texas? Even most non-gardeners love to see butterflies. Many know about the magical transformation from a homely caterpillar to a striking butterfly, but many aren’t aware of the dependency of each butterfly to specific host plants. Butterfly gardens have become immensely popular around the country in recent years. Many of us plant nectar plants for butterflies so we can watch them in our gardens. But it’s just as important to either grow host plants for their larvae or preserve wild spaces in nature for plants to grow naturally for them to munch on.
If you want to attract the most butterflies possible to your garden, consider planting verbena, lantana, vitex, butterfly bush, butterfly weed, liatris, zinnias, pentas, purple cone flower, asters, azaleas or phlox. Here are a just few of my favorite butterflies.
Buckeye: This smallish brown butterfly has big showy blue eyeballs or “buckeyes” on his wings. The black spiny larvae are partial to the snapdragon family and feed on false foxglove (Agalinas) in my pocket prairie.
Giant Swallowtail: This is the biggest of our butterflies and is black with a big yellow “smile” across its wings. The larvae (which look like bird droppings) of this behemoth feed exclusively on members of the citrus family. Although they will feed on cultivated citrus, in the wild they rely on Hercules club (Zanthoxylum) and wafer ash (Ptelea).
Goatweed Leafwing: This amazing little guy looks like a dead leaf on the back side of the wings but boasts bright orange on top. It hosts on the lowly goatweed (Croton).
Gulf Fritillary: Everybody should plant a passion vine in their yard so they can follow the complete lifecycle of this tropical orange butterfly. You’ll get to watch them lay eggs, hatch, munch, mature, form chrysalids and hatch all before your very eyes. It’s generally a non-stop show from summer until frost.
Monarch: Everybody loves the beautiful monarch, our Texas state insect. Even most kids recognize it. Monarchs are reliant on different species of milkweed (Asclepias) for their caterpillars so make sure and keep plenty around.
Sulfur: I associate bright yellow sulfur butterflies with Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus) and red spider lilies (Lycoris) as they never seem to be without them when they are in bloom. Sulfur butterfly larvae feed on members of the pea family (Fabaceae).
Tiger Swallowtail: This black and yellow striped beauty is my second favorite butterfly. Tiger swallowtail larvae feed on ash trees (Fraxinus), black cherry (Prunus serotina) and many others.
Zebra Swallowtail: My favorite butterfly in the world is the delicate zebra swallowtail. It only occurs in East Texas and portions of the U.S where pawpaws (Asimina) are native. Like the gulf fritillary, the zebra swallowtail is also a tropical butterfly that is forever linked with an ancient tropical genus of plants left over from a warmer, milder past.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He is co-author of “Heirloom Gardening in the South” and “The Rose Rustlers.” You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com, his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com), or follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens.” More research-based gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu and plantanswers.com.