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Variety of flowers help attract butterflies to the garden

| Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, 8:55 p.m.
Jessica Walliser
A female Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly rests on a dill plant.

Question: My granddaughter loves butterflies, and I'm interested in learning what I can plant in my garden to get more of them to come to my yard. I don't have a big flower garden, but I do have room for a few more plants. What do you think I should plant to lure in a good diversity of butterflies?

Answer: There are many flowering plants that supply butterflies with nectar, but some are easier to grow than others. If you're looking for plants that grow quickly and without a lot of fuss, I suggest growing butterfly-magnet annuals such as zinnias, cosmos, and the all-time favorite of the butterflies in my garden, Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia). All three of these plants are easy to grow from seed by simply tucking a few seeds directly into the garden's soil in mid-May, after the danger of frost has passed. Pick a sunny spot that's sheltered from the wind, if possible, to keep both the plants and butterflies happy.

Perennials are another good group of plants to include in the garden for butterflies. At my house, the purple coneflowers (Echinacea) are constantly aflutter with multiple species of butterflies. But, when it comes to this plant, avoid planting double-petaled coneflower varieties because they may look pretty, but they aren't welcoming to pollinators due to the many layers of petals that block their nectaries (some double varieties don't even produce any nectar at all!). Other perennials the butterflies love are liatris, milkweed and phlox.

Many gardeners also grow butterfly bush (Buddleja) for butterflies, too. But, this plant is on the invasive and noxious weed list in several states because of its tendency to self-seed into wild areas. In my own garden, I've replaced my butterfly bushes with a plant that draws even more butterflies ­— the native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). I also have plenty of ironweed, asters and goldenrod around as well.

If you really want to please your granddaughter, you should also include host plants for caterpillars in your garden. Kids take great joy in discovering swallowtail caterpillars on dill, fennel and parsley plants, monarch caterpillars on milkweed plants and fritillary caterpillars on the leaves of violets. If you find butterfly caterpillars on host plants, a quick Internet search will tell you how to safely rear them in captivity so your granddaughter can even watch them turn into a chrysalis and then emerge as an adult butterfly ready to be released back into the garden. It's an experience neither of you will forget!

There's one more thing you can do to encourage butterflies in your garden: eliminate pesticides. Sadly, many of North America's butterflies are facing massive population declines due to pesticide exposure and habitat loss. Homeowners can help these winged jewels by not using pesticides on their lawns and in their flower and vegetable gardens, and by creating nectar-foraging and over-wintering habitat through planting a diverse array of plant materials in their landscapes.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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