Don't you wish everyone could find beauty in all things, even in something that's downright homely? Children's stories abound with tales about the downtrodden being transformed into magnificence, from the ugly duckling that grew into a beautiful swan to Cinderella, who went from the cinders to royalty thanks to a fairy godmother.
You can tap into that childlike sense of wonder and get the kids outdoors to experience the beauty of nature by planting a butterfly garden at home. Public gardens, schools, parks and other children's facilities have known for years that kids are fascinated with the life cycle of the butterfly. What child — or adult, for that matter — isn't in awe of the delicate, colorfully winged insect that flutters about the garden after emerging from its unattractive little chrysalis?
Grace Boender, who with her husband Ronald owns and operates Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, just south of Boca Raton, considered the largest butterfly house in the United States, calls butterflies "flying flowers." It's no wonder, with their intricately patterned wings in practically every color. There are more than 100 species in Florida, and many visit our gardens all year long.
All it takes are two plants to start your own butterfly garden: a nectar plant that attracts adult butterflies to feed and a host plant where they can lay eggs and feed even more. Of course, the more plants you include in your garden, the larger numbers and more varieties of butterflies you'll attract — and your garden will be more colorful. Even if your only garden space is a balcony or patio, you can grow plants to enjoy these magically winged beauties.
Nectar plants that attract and feed adult butterflies include perennial favorites such as penta, lantana, butterfly bush, hibiscus, plumbago, railroad vine, black-eyed Susan, shrimp plant and daylily. Colorful annuals, among them sunflower, salvia and zinnia, are good choices, too. Even common herbs attract butterflies, including basil, bee balm, chives, dill, fennel, mint, oregano, parsley, pineapple sage, rosemary and thyme.
There are plenty of native plants that provide nectar for butterflies, such as the geiger tree, buttonwood, firebush, native lantana, wild coffee, necklace pod, beach sunflower and blue porterweed.
Many garden centers display butterfly-attracting plants together, and sometimes plants are labeled as such. Typically plants will have flat, cluster or spike flower shapes that help support the butterfly's footing while feeding on nectar. Butterflies are attracted to a variety of colors, so include yellow, orange, white, blue, red, pink and purple flowers.
Nectar plants for butterflies are like rest stops along the highway. They'll stop, take a drink, but move on to the next yard. If you want them to stay, reproduce and make your garden their home base, you've got to add one or more host plants. Butterflies will lay their eggs and feed on host plants such as aster, cassia, coral bean, gaillardia, milkweed, necklace pod, oleander, passion vine, pipe vine and verbena. Experts recommend choosing native varieties of host plants when possible, such as Passiflora incarnata, lutea, multiflora and suberosa varieties of passion flower and Asclepias curassavica, humistrata, incarnata, longiflora and tuberosa native varieties of milkweed. Shop at garden centers that specialize in native plants or have knowledgeable staff that will help you choose the right varieties.
You don't need to place the host and nectar plants next to each other in your yard — although that makes life easier for fluttering visitors — but try to locate them in a common area. Butterflies prefer a sunny spot protected from the wind. Plant yours where you can see the flowers and butterfly activity from a window, perhaps a kitchen window over the sink or by the kitchen or dining room table.
A nice touch in your butterfly garden is a water source, such as a dish or birdbath filled with sand or rocks to provide safe resting for butterflies. Keep it evenly moist with fresh water, especially during dry spells.
Involve the kids in every aspect of the garden. They can help select plants at the garden center, prepare the garden bed, plant the selections and assist with maintenance chores such as watering and weeding. Put them in charge of watching for caterpillars and the formation of a chrysalis, followed by the emerging adult butterfly.
Don't have children or grandchildren? No problem. Everyone's a kid at heart when it comes to butterfly gardening. Just let your inner child take over, still amazed at the beauty of a new winged wonder taking flight.
Yvonne Swanson is a Pinellas County master gardener and freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.