Adding Joy

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Best Ways to Attract Birds and Butterflies To Your Gardens

Story by Jeanie Erwin

There is something about the delicate balance of what we see in nature that reminds us of the fragility of life and the importance of bringing some small delight to each of our days. Maybe that is why our gardening takes on such meaning and purpose; because with it we unfurl beauty and invite in the tantalizing glimpses of the interconnectedness of life.

Gardening is always a journey, and gardening with the hope of attracting butterflies and birds is one of the most delightful of them all, and much easier than most people think.

Birds, butterflies and other wildlife have similar needs as humans, says Dennis Patton, Horticulture Agent at Kansas State Research and Extension, and when we meet those needs in diverse ways, you attract diversity.

“If you are gardening with the hope of attracting butterflies, birds and other critters, you need to keep three things in mind,” he explained, “food, water, and shelter. If you provide those three things, you will attract wildlife.”

Those basics are easily provided by the trees, plants and flowers in your yard, and by adding a simple birdbath. Exactly what you attract will depend on the diversity of your plants, flowers, trees, and shrubs.




Attracting Butterflies

The elements of a butterfly garden do not have to be all in one concentrated area of your yard, but attracting their loveliness does require a bit of planning. Butterflies prefer a sunny location with lots of trees and shrubs to protect them from wind and predators.

“If you really want to attract butterflies and create a butterfly habitat, you need to remember to plant for all stages of development. Most people think about providing nectar plants, which attract the adult butterfly, but you also need what is called host plants for butterflies to lay their eggs on and for the larval stage to feed on,” Patton explained. “A successful garden will have some damage from the caterpillars feeding. We get excited when we see that.”

The type of butterfly your garden attracts is largely dependent on what host plants you provide. While butterflies drink, or nectar, from a wide range of nectar plants, different kinds of butterflies lay their eggs on specific host plants on which they hatch and feed.

“Milkweed attracts Monarchs, for example, while parsley, dill, or fennel attracts Black Swallotails.”

Next you need to provide the perfect place to land, rest and nectar. Butterflies love bright flowers with large faces and petals because they act as a landing pad and support while they nectar. Flowers such as yarrow (Achilea) are perfect for this.

“Again, diversity is important. The size, shape and color of a flower’s bloom will attract different butterflies to the nectar so having a wide variety will encourage many different kinds of butterflies to call your yard their home,” Patton furthered.


Call Out

The National Wildlife Federation recommends the following plants for common butterflies:

  • Acmon Blue – buckwheat, lupines, milkvetch
  • American Painted Lady – cudweed, everlast
  • Baird’s Swallowtail – dragon sagebrush
  • Black Swallowtail – parsley, dill, fennel, common rue
  • Coral Hairstreak – wild black cherry, American and chickasaw plum, black chokeberry
  • Dun Skipper – sedges, grasses including purpletop
  • Eastern Tiger Swallowtail – wild black cherry, ash, tulip tree, willow, sweetbay, basswood
  • Giant Swallowtail – prickly ash, citrus, common rue, hoptree, gas plant, torchwood
  • Gray Comma – gooseberry, azalea, elm
  • Great Purple Hairstreak – mistletoe
  • Gulf Fritillary – maypops, other passion vines
  • Henry’s Elfin – redbud, dahoon and yaupon hollies, maple-leaved viburnum, blueberries
  • Monarch – milkweeds
  • Painted Lady (Cosmopolite) – thistles, mallows, nievitas, yellow fiddleneck
  • Pygmy Blue – saltbush, lamb’s quarters, pigweed
  • Red Admiral/White Admiral – wild cherries, black oaks, aspens, yellow and black birch
  • Silver-Spotted Skipper – locusts, wisteria, other legumes
  • Spicebush Swallowtail – sassafras, spicebush
  • Sulphurs – clover, peas, vetch, alfalfa, asters
  • Variegated Fritillary – passion flower, maypop, violets, stonecrop, purslane
  • Viceroy – willows, cottonwood, aspen
  • Western Tailed Blue – vetches, milkvetches
  • Western Tiger Swallowtail – willow, plum, alder, sycamore, hoptree, ash
  • Woodland Skipper – grasses
  • Zebra Swallowtail – pawpaw




Inviting Feathered Friends

A yard without the birds’ melodious songs is just not complete, and the Kansas City area is fortunate to enjoy many of their sweet anthems. According to the Kansas Ornithological Society, Kansas Breeding Bird Atlas Project and the Kansas Biological Survey, there are 325 bird species observed in Johnson County alone. Attracting them to your yard regularly, however, takes more than putting up a few bird feeders.

“Again, remember food, shelter, and water as you add to your garden,” urged Patton. “Plant with the wildlife in mind and choose options that are a good food source as well as shelter.”

Tress such as the Rocky Mountain Juniper, Ponderosa Pine, Eastern Red-Cedar, and various species of Oak are all perfect for use in creating a bird habitat because they have dense foliage and provide a ready source of seed for food. Bushes such as Holly and Beautyberry are also a great source of food and shelter for wildlife.

Once you have created your bird and butterfly habitat, use habitat friendly practices to keep it healthy and safe. Do not use pesticides on the food, water and shelter areas of your yard, and mow on the highest setting to protect the larval stage.

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