Let's Go Outside . . .
How you can create your own butterfly garden.
Creating a butterfly garden
Creating a garden for these “wildflowers with wings” adds diversity and beauty to your area with little extra effort.
Many North American butterfly species are declining, due mainly to habitat loss and overuse of pesticides. Of the 179 species in South Dakota, several are rare enough to be considered for listing on the federal endangered and threatened species list. Butterfly gardens can supplement remaining habitat and help ensure that other species do not decline.
To determine if an area has potential for a butterfly garden, consider the following:
If the answers to these questions are yes, then use that sunny area for a butterfly and moth garden!
What do butterflies need?
Insects such as butterflies need the same basic habitat components as all other living creatures: food, water, cover, and space. A butterfly garden condenses these habitat components to increase viewing and photography opportunities. Moist soil and a puddle can easily be included in the garden to accommodate water needs. A windbreak of plants or solid fencing provides shelter from a butterfly’s enemy – the wind. A sunny location is essential because the cold-blooded butterflies must warm up in the morning and stay warm throughout the day.
Attracting Adult Butterflies
Adult butterflies expend much energy during flight and seek high-energy food sources. Flower nectar contains high-energy sugars and lipids, but different plant species have different percentages of the ingredients important to butterflies. Butterflies visit several plant species for the nectar they need, so a garden with a diversity of plants attracts more butterflies. When selecting plants for butterflies, keep the following in mind:
Which flowers fit these requirements? The choices are many. Some native species that grow readily in a garden and attract many butterfly species are:
Other native species to consider are common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), dogbane (Apocynum spp.), Joe-Pye-weed (Eupatorium spp.), and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).
Some native species can be difficult to purchase from a retailer or hard to establish in a garden. Consider including some exotic species. Some recommended exotic species are alfalfa (Medicago spp.), chives (Allium schoenoprasum), dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), daisies (Chrysanthemum spp.), zinnia (Zinnia elegans), and lilac (Syringa vulgaris). Be sure to select June-blooming Canadian or Korean varieties of lilac. French varieties often bloom too early to provide nectar for butterflies.
Butterflies use many plant species, but use caution when considering planting some of these. Five or six thistle species are native to South Dakota. The native thistles are typically less aggressive than the exotic thistles found in the state. Common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is an exotic species considered a pest by most people. Although both thistles and dandelions are very appealing to butterflies, a butterfly gardener should proceed with care when using these plants. Regular weeding is critical to keep dandelions and thistles in check, and their control may be mandated by city or county ordinances.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is a native plant genus with an undeserved bad reputation. Goldenrod pollen was once thought to trigger hayfever. We now know that ragweed (Ambrosia spp.) is the true culprit. Goldenrod is a fairly aggressive native butterfly food source that can be encouraged in small patches.
When you design your butterfly garden, arrange the plants so the tallest are toward the back, and stairstep them so the shortest plants are in front. Plant in clumps, as larger areas of bright colors help attract butterflies. A few of our state’s butterfly species, those in the brush-footed butterfly family, prefer to eat moist, rotten fruit or animal dung. Include a place to add a piece of moistened apple, banana, or rotted horse manure to attract question marks, commas, mourning cloaks, and tortoise shells to your butterfly garden.
Water is needed for drinking and for food. Sink a shallow pan in the plot and fill the pan with sand. Keep the sand moist so butterflies can drink from the area. A mud puddle with standing water attracts other butterfly species that need nutrients provided by the mud.
Plant a windscreen compatible with your overall wildlife landscaping plan. Place light-colored stones in the garden and align them perpendicular to the morning sun. These spots serve as early morning basking sites for many kinds of butterflies.
Attracting and Feeding Caterpillars
Another more intricate step for butterfly gardeners is providing for the caterpillar form of the insect’s life cycle. This life cycle has four stages: egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult or butterfly. Female butterflies select plants on which to lay eggs based on what the emerging caterpillars eat. Some species lay eggs on many different plants, but others are quite specific about their offspring’s “host” plant.
Caterpillars eat their host plants, and a butterfly gardener should realize this activity is inevitable. To prevent caterpillars from overeating their welcome, maintain a healthy, diverse group of native forbs and shrubs. Create a caterpillar food plot with some of the butterfly table’s (later in this section) suggested plants.
Caterpillars are food for many other living things, including birds. Some caterpillar species survive by eating substances that make them distasteful to a predator. The milkweed-eating monarch caterpillar is an example. Thick shrubby areas provide caterpillar cover. If landscaping for butterflies and birds, do not place a birdhouse directly above a butterfly garden!
Moth species are much more numerous than butterfly species in North America, but less is known about moths. Because most moths are nocturnal, or active at night, they are often overlooked as an integral part of the natural world. Sphinx moths, also called hawk moths, visit gardens in the early evening to sip nectar from petunias. Because of their large size and ability to hover in front of a plant, some people call them “hummingbird moths.”
Moths and butterflies are fairly simply to tell apart. Moth antennae are feathery or tapered. Butterfly antennae have knot-like clubs at the tips. Moths rest with their wings held tent-like over the back or extended to the sides. Butterflies rest with wings held vertically over the back. These two characteristics and the time of day of the observation are the easiest ways to distinguish a butterfly from a moth.
Moths are often considered garden pests. While some species are guilty, few moth species deserve bad reputations. Not only do moths pollinate night-flowering plants, but moths are food for birds, toads, and bats.
Where is the Garden?
Oahe-Downstream Location Map
Fort Pierre, South Dakota
The Garden is located south of the parking lot by the Visitor Center. A large kiosk is at the edge of the trail.
This project was made possible with a grant from the USFWS Connecting People with Nature - Let's Get Outside fund.
An additional small grant came from the South Dakota Chapter of The Wildlife Society.
USFWS couldn't do this alone - many thanks go to the staff of South Dakota Game Fish & Parks for their participation during all aspects of the project -
The Activity Guide by Jen Fowler was made possible through the SDGFP Wildlife Division Small Grants Program.
Thanks go to the many students that participated in classroom activities to help grow plants and decorate the garden.
Thanks to Colleen Thompson for helping coordinate activities at the garden.
A big Thank You to all the volunteers who will help plant the perennials June 1 and 2.
Photos have been provided by:
Thanks to Gary Marrone for his inspiration to getting all of us interested in butterflies. Look for his book Field Guide to Butterflies of South Dakota, published in 2002.
Selected South Dakota butterfly species
Last updated: April 8, 2014