GIMME SHELTER- Butterfly bonanza: Plant it and they will come

Linda Marchman, Owner, Social Butterflies

Q: How do we get Monarch butterflies to return to our garden? We saw so few last year. And what do we need to do to attract other butterflies?

A: Yes, everyone loves Monarchs because of their distinctive markings and slow graceful flight. What many people don't realize is that Monarch caterpillars eat only one thing: milkweed. We used to have more fields of milkweed in the area, but many of those fields have been developed or are regularly mowed. As a result, we're seeing fewer Monarchs returning to the area. It's actually becoming a big problem. No milkweed, no Monarchs. 

When I first started out, about six years ago, I decided I wanted to raise Monarchs because I had a big field of milkweed behind my house. I ordered the caterpillars, cut the milkweed for them, but they wouldn't eat it. As it turned out, my field of "milkweed" was really a field of dogbane, which looks alot like milkweed. 

The moral of the story? Yes, it's relatively easy to create a butterfly garden or attract butterflies back to your garden, but it helps to educate yourself a little. 

To raise and attract butterflies, you have to raise the right host plants for the caterpillars and the right nectar plants for the butterflies. As we say in the butterfly raising business, "If you plant it, they will come." 

For Monarch caterpillars, of course, the host plant is milkweed, but for other species, like the big beautiful Black Swallow Tails, it's dill, fennel, and parsley. For other butterfly species, like Painted Ladies, you'll need thistle, hollyhock, and mallow leaves; and for Variegated Fritillary, you'll need pansies and passionvine.

For butterflies, the best nectar plant is the butterfly bush, which blooms from June to the first frost. Lantana and pin cushion flower are also good nectar plants. Basically, if it smells good to you, it's going to attract butterflies. 

Generally, Monarchs live for just three to four weeks, but their offspring continue their life-cycles throughout the season. As a result, Monarchs produce three to four generations from June to September.

As you may know, the last generation of "super" Monarchs go on a remarkable journey. Building their bodies up by nectaring, they can live for as long as seven months, just enough time to complete an amazing trip to Mexico. 

Millions of Monarchs from as far away as Canada make the trip to Mexico every year, where they gather in fir trees, layer upon layer of them, resting and waiting out the winter. Around February, they begin to wake up and start their their life-cycles again. They mate and die, following the milkweed back home, until their offspring find their way back to Charlottesville in June. 

Hopefully, if we all do our part and plant some, they'll find more milkweed waiting when they get here.