Flying Flowers: The Beauty of Butterflies

Butterfly on coreopsis. Copyright Jill Henderson - Show Me OzBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

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.

Coreopsis and daisies spring up after a burn.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.

640px-Inachis_io_top_detail_MichaDButterfly 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.

640px-Pipevine_Swallowtail_larva,_Megan_McCarty52Of 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.

Happy Gardening!

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz
© 2012 Jill Henderson

If you would like to attract more butterflies to your garden, check out a few of the following resources.

butterflyThe 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.

UntitledAnother 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.

AJOS (3) thumb 417x640 70dpiOf 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.

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3 responses to “Flying Flowers: The Beauty of Butterflies

  1. Pingback: Turk’s Cap, native Texas flower in 90 seconds « Millard Fillmore's Bathtub

  2. Very informative, Jill! Beautifully written, as always. Beautifully observed with the keen eye I have come to associate with you.
    Luckily, I have a whole lot of dill planted this year. I grow it as much because I love the smell of it as because I like to cook with it. Now, I guess I can grow it for the butterflies, too!

    • Thanks, Diana! I’m so glad you liked the article. Last week, when it was very hot, I could smell the dill inside the house! Can’t wait until pickling time!! This fall I’ll be able to divide my fennel and next year I’ll be planting tons more dill, too! 🙂

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