Monarch butterflies can be found in every continental state in America. Seven states have even named the monarch their “state insect,” according to the Environmental Defense Fund. That’s good news for those who would like to create a backyard space to attract monarchs as they make their way north or south for their long annual migrations.
The first step is a to do a little research to learn what monarchs and other butterflies are fluttering around your community. Books can provide information, but lepidopterists (people who collect and study butterflies and moths) or butterfly organizations in your area also will have details.
An important component of a butterfly-friendly garden is milkweed. For monarchs, it is the primary part of their caterpillar diet, and it’s the only plant that they lay their eggs on. The eggs become tiny caterpillars, then bright green cocoons and, after a short time, newborn butterflies. (Resist the urge to touch!)
There are many varieties of milkweed and even though farmers or others may see it as an unpleasant weed, its blooms have a lovely fragrance and without it, monarchs may hang around for some nectar, then likely keep moving. Milkweed attracts other types of butterflies and hummingbirds. The plant is also known as butterfly weed or pleurisy root.
Monarchs like a variety (that means a colorful garden for you) and native plants are best (neighborhood monarchs prefer regional cuisine). In return, butterflies perform a great social service: They pollinate plants.
Local garden clubs or county extension services should be helpful in suggesting the elements for a successful butterfly garden. Also, nurseries and garden shops in your community may be able to provide the native varieties of milkweed and flowers to make a monarch feel at home. Look to the Internet to buy milkweed seeds from companies like the Natural Fibers Corporation in Illinois or Butterfly Encounters in California. (Be sure to ask about which variety grows best in your plant zone, or check zones on the USDA milkweed webpage.) The Butterfly Farm also sends out seeds, for free, with a donation to the monarch cause.
Providing a drink is easy. Monarchs like to sip the moisture from a wet gravely, sandy or muddy shallow hole in the ground to get extra nutrients they can’t get from flowers. Don’t make the puddle too deep, just a few inches, but remember to keep it moist.
Now you can start watching. They fly best when it’s warm and even hot, and if the temperature is cooler (below about 75 degrees Fahrenheit) they’ll sit on plants to soak up some sun. They will posture or perch as courtship rituals.
There are many Web sites with monarch and general butterfly gardening information. Here are a few:
The North American Butterfly Association, The Butterfly Website (which lists many butterfly societies around the world), Monarch Butterfly Journey North lists butterfly gardening Web sites and climate zone information.
Butterflies and Moths of North America is stuffed full of details on attracting monarchs and creating a butterfly garden, as well as ways to help the monarch cause.
Gardens with Wings is a pretty and colorful guide to bring butterflies into your back yard, complete with a box that you can enter your zip code into for detailed information specific for your part of the country.
Other sites to check out are Monarch Watch (and their “Waystations” page); The Butterfly Site and Monarch Butterfly. Butterflies and Moths of North America, a part of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center site, has a searchable database of butterflies and moths of the U.S and Mexico, and it includes dynamic distribution maps, photos, species accounts and checklists.