Groff's Plant Farm Images

Butterfly Summer

Published: Fri Aug 18th 2017

This summer the kids wanted to plant lots of butterfly-attracting plants in the beds around the house. The key to butterflies is to have both foods for the caterpillars to eat (larval foods) and nectar-bearing foods for the adults. We already had a ton of coreopsis, coneflowers, zinnias and petunias for the adults, we needed to work on larval foods. We do have Tulip poplars for the Eastern Tiger Swallotails and violets for the frittilaries but they decided to try to help the rock stars of the butterfly world, Monarchs.

Monarchs eat strictly milkweed as caterpillars, but there are several kinds. The kids helped me put in about 2 dozen tropical milkweed plants (Asclepias currasavica) and by mid-July their work paid off. I especially like tropical milkweed because it produces a ton of leaves for the monarch caterpillars to eat. The perennial swamp milkweed, butterfly weed and common milkweed are also good options.

When we spied the first Monarch sipping nectar from the flowers, we hoped she would lay her eggs. A few days later we found itty-bitty baby caterpillars happily munching on the leaves. Success!

Our second close encounter with butterflies was on our staff to Hershey Gardens. In addition to the rose garden, for which they are famous, they now have a butterfly sanctuary. The recently-constructed atrium houses 500-600 butterflies from around the world. Brooke, the chief horticulturist for the Butterfly Atrium, works closely with the USDA to import tropical species in the chrysalis stage. They emerge in a special cabinet, then are released into the atrium where the spend their adulthood.

The staff are very deliberate in their plant selection, growing plants high in nectar like plumeria, pentas and shrimp plant to feed the adult butterflies. They also have feeding stations with Gatorade and ripe fruit.

The conservatory contains no larval food plants as the staff are not permitted to hatch eggs and rear caterpillars. A double air-lock system ensures the butterflies do not escape.

After our trip to Hershey, the kids decided we should bring the caterpillars inside so our chickens wouldn’t eat them. Of the 5 caterpillars we first brought in, four made chrysalises. After 7-9 days the jewel-green chrysalises became clear and the black-and-gold butterflies were ready to emerge. Their cocoons cracked open and after a few hours to allow their wings to dry and firm up, we released them back outside.

Now every few days we scout the plants for caterpillars and eggs, pick leaves, and set up more Monarch nurseries on my kitchen counter. The caterpillars molt several times before they are ready to pupate and need lots of leaves to munch on. The first few days I just picked individual leaves and put them on the bottom of a Mason jar. Every morning, we scoop out the frass (fancy word for poop) and pick more leaves. I quickly found it is easier to pick stems 6-8” long and wrap the bottom in moist paper towel. That makes clean-up faster.

We lost a few. One small caterpillar pulled a Houdini and ended up on the floor to be stepped on by the dog. One chrysalis became dislodged from the top of the container and the butterfly never emerged. But by and large we have been successful. The kids researched butterflies and the best way to rear them indoors on the internet; it was a great learning experience for Liam and Ali.

When we set them free they sipped some nectar from the ‘Black and Blue’ Salvia, and other flowers in the yard. Then they winged their way to freedom. Its been a good summer.