Butterflies are more than just pretty flittering bugs.
As valuable pollinators butterflies indicate the health and well-being of an ecosystem or area.
Setting up a small habitat – from intentionally gardening with native plants and “feeder” plants for these lovely, multicolored critters to constructing a butterfly conservatory, atrium or house can have lasting impact on your property and surrounding landscape.
Inspired by what they can do for natural areas and communities Bountiful Acres in Buckingham Township recently finished building a 1,000 square foot butterfly atrium on the site of its retail garden center property.
The goal is to help educate customers and the public about the wonderful world – and impressive work – accomplished by butterflies, said Andrew Eckhoff, Bountiful Acres general manager.
“Our visitors will be able to view adults and chrysalis – or two to three life cycles” of butterflies, Eckhoff said.
Other butterfly house educational and natural environments are located at the Churchville Nature Center and The Butterfly Atrium at Hershey Gardens in Hershey, Dauphin County.
With a little intention Bucks County gardeners and property owners can ensure butterflies are attracted – and stay put – throughout the growing season by planting host plants butterflies favor and on which they lay eggs.
“Every butterfly has its specific host plant. Monarchs lay on butterfly weed,” Eckhoff explained. Butterfly weed or ‘Asclepias tuberosa’ is a native milkweed plant.
The caterpillar emerges and devours its host plant. Black swallowtails lay their eggs on parsley, dill and fennel.
Yellow tiger swallowtails enjoy tulip and sweetbay magnolia trees as their host plants.
Keep in mind there will be some caterpillar damage to host plants, especially large established species or trees, but they do not kill the host plant, Eckhoff said.
“On smaller plants like dill, they will eat a lot of the plant” he said. If you want dill for the table, make sure you plant plenty of this fast growing herb or make successive plantings early in the growing season.
As the caterpillar emerges from the chrysalis it will seemingly eat non-stop.
The butterfly house at Bountiful Acres aims to educate and delight visitors.
Planting even a corner of the garden with native plants that have not been cross-bred or hybridized will help attract butterflies to the landscape.
Visitors will be able to purchase butterfly friendly plants at Bountiful Acres, should they opt to create their own butterfly paradise.
Margaret Pickhoff said planting for pollinators should include selecting species that are common in the region.
Pickhoff is a commercial horticulture educator in the Bucks County office of Penn State Extension in Wrightstown Township.
“Often times breeders have taken natives and bred them to have larger flowers or more spectacular colors or shapes. The size and color of the flower head can be confusing to our pollinators,” Pickhoff explained.
And any plants noted as sterile varieties are “useless to pollinators.”
Look for plants with big, compound flower heads or heads made up of tiny little flowers. Examples include Joe Pye weed, goldenrod (Solidago) and native milkweed varieties.
“Native sunflowers, Echinacea (coneflowers) and black-eyed Susans are great because they are flat and their petals create a nice landing surface for insects to rest on while they are doing their thing,” Pickhoff said.
Mint family varieties such as salvia, garden mint and mountain mint along with lavender are among the best pollinator plants, she said.
“Every time I see mountain mint, it’s completely covered with pollinators,” Pickhoff noted.
Woody perennials are other plant materials that attract and retain pollinators. Consider native varieties with “lots of tiny little flowers,” she said.
“Most of the pollinator plants we recommend are perennials because it’s easier to find native plants that are perennials,” Pickhoff said.
When planting annuals for pollinators they must have nectar and be able to shed pollen so it can be transferred from flower to flower.
“More tropical cut and garden flowers may be attractive to pollinators like cosmos and zinnias, but plants native to our region are better food sources,” Pickhoff explained.
She recommends prioritizing native plant selections, which allows you to include non natives like mandevilla and zinnias to strike the right balance.
“It doesn’t have to be 100% native plants. If you do 70% native plants you can plant 30% in annual species in your garden” and still be a great refuge for butterflies, Pickhoff said.
“Anything that creates a fruit will need pollinators,” Pickhoff said.
While Monarda (bee balm) is often considered a perennial flower – and it is – bee balm or bergamot is also used and cultivated as an herb. Bergamot is the essential oil made to flavor Earl Grey tea.
“Monarda is a great pollinator plant as is mint, rosemary, lavender and basil. All form small tubular shaped flowers that bees and other pollinators really love,” Pickhoff explained.
Queen Anne’s lace, parsley, dill and fennel will produce leaves the larvae can feed on and nice white flowers pollinators like to visit as well.
“Lots of different herbs can serve that purpose” of attracting pollinators to the garden, she said.
Because many vegetables require pollinators, consider companion planting.
“Anything in the carrot family will attract pollinators, including black swallowtails. For any sort of squash, there are particular bees, called squash bees, that go into the big flowers and visit them” taking pollen away to the next flower they visit, she said.
Cucumbers, zucchini and pumpkins along with others in the Cucurbita family will require pollinators to grow into produce for the table and fall harvest decorations for the patio, deck and porch.
While we associate the produce of such plants as vegetables the name we know as pumpkin derives from the Ancient Greek which means melon.
Not all plants are pollinated in the same way.
“Tomatoes need vibration to release their pollen, such as that which is made by bumblebees,” Pickhoff said.
The Penn State Extension offers a way for home gardeners to become pollinator friendly habitat locations – without the time or commitment required to become a master gardener.
“You can apply to have your garden certified as a pollinator friendly habitat, which includes food, water, shelter and reduced [use of] pesticides,” Pickhoff said.
There are four steps needed to complete the process. A $10 application fee is charged along with the application, which should include a sketch and/or photographs, the Penn State Extension website said.
“It’s a cool way to have your work recognized and get your neighbors interested in what you are doing in your garden,” Pickhoff said.
To get more information about having your garden certified as a pollinator friendly habitat, visit extension.psu.edu.