Butterflies must be one of the most beloved creatures of all time. They exist almost everywhere on the planet and their diverse forms are absolutely one of the most astounding feats of creation. In Missouri alone, there are 198 recorded species of butterfly; from the seemingly dull skipper to the fantastically impressive swallowtail. The Ozarks have enough butterflies to keep even avid butterfly lovers happy.
We weren’t thinking specifically of butterflies when we stopped brush hogging and began periodic burning. We began doing it because we treasure wild space and we knew that doing these things would increase the health and biodiversity of the field, turning it into a meadow that would generate wildlife food and cover.
And of course, we knew that wild space naturally attracts wild things, but the butterflies were somewhat of a surprise. Eventually we helped eliminate some of the non-natives and planted native plants and flowers specifically for butterflies. But the best thing we ever did was to let the meadow do its own thing. Now, as I look into the yard, I can count at least eight different species of butterflies flitting around out there and when these are finished feeding and mating, other species will come to take their place.
Butterfly wings are made up of thousands of super thin scales attached to a transparent wing membrane. Just as our skin contains color pigments, so do the scales of butterfly wings. Each individual scale has a base color made up of reds, browns, yellows and oranges. In addition to these base pigments, each scale has another, more unique type of coloration caused by minute structures on top of the scale itself. These fantastic structures bend and refract light to produce varied metallic and pearlized colors of gold, blue, green, silver and purple. Combined, these amazing, almost minute scales make up the wing patterns unique to each butterfly species.
I so enjoy butterflies that I will spend hours watching them flit among the various flowers in the yard. At the moment we are blessed by an abundance of sulphurs, blues and hairstreaks that are absolutely immersed in the ornamental oregano blooming beside the house. The butterflies flutter shoulder to shoulder alongside a profusion of tiny bees, wasps and the hovering, hummingbird-like sphinx moths called Hawkmoths (Nessus sphinx). The butterflies are so engrossed in the feeding frenzy, that when we slide a finger beneath their feet, they will climb on without even thinking of flying away. Holding a willing butterfly in your hand is a most incredible feeling; one that makes us long to add yet more supporting plants to our gardens.
Of course, having a wide variety of butterflies in the yard comes, in part, by having a wide variety of habitat to support them. Each butterfly family has its own special needs, including specific types of nectar producing flowers, moist mineral laden soils, sheltering and sunning sites and water. Most importantly, the caterpillars of each species require very specific types of plants to feed on before they can morph into a butterfly. A caterpillar will starve to death before eating a plant not suited to its needs. And without caterpillars, there are no butterflies.
With the summer ahead promising to be exceedingly hot and droughty, many ornamentals will wane in their beauty unless watered religiously. Native plants – no matter where you live – will always be more resistant to extremes and require less water and overall maintenance than non-natives and fussy hybrids found in a typical nursery. By providing a wide array of native butterfly plants to your landscape, you’ll also help ensure that your flying flowers will have food to grow on so they can bloom all summer long.
If you would like to attract more butterflies to your garden, check out a few of the following resources.
The Missouri Department of Conservation offers a free PDF booklet called Butterfly Gardening & Conservation. This small but informative guide will get you on the road to creating valuable butterfly habitat in your own yard. It includes a generous list of native plants that attract butterflies.
Another excellent free online guide is Native Plants for Your Landscape: How to Attract Fun-To-Watch Wildlife by Grow Native, a partnership between the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Grow Native also has an excellent website that will help you find native plants, trees and shrubs that not only attract wildlife, but enhance the beauty and biodiversity of your property.
Of course, if you’re interested in the nature, gardening, homesteading or wildcrafting, or if you’re just a fan of the Ozarks, allow me to recommend my own book, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozark High Country, from which this article originated. You can find this book, available in print and eBook in the Show Me Oz bookstore.