Raising butterflies in your backyard garden

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

A year ago this month, at the close of the inaugural meeting of the West Cook Wild Oneat Green Home Experts in Oak Park is where and when I began talking with veteran butterfly gardener Stephanie Walquist about her ongoing passion.

Stephanie, a former high school English teacher turned self-taught butterfly expert and educator, told me that by doing less work with our end-of-the-year garden and yard clean-up, we could protect butterflies by helping them overwinter in our yards. 

By mid-September, that go-to and easy-to-buy-into gardening tip of doing less to gain more made me want to further explore Stephanie's certified butterfly garden and landscape.  I also asked for a guided tour of what she really meant by that, got one, and, of course, many of you tagged along.

Recently, when I found a few Monarch eggs on the leaves of my alley-side Common Milkweed plants -- a gift from the local birds, I suspect, which is the larval hosts for Monarch butterflies -- we grabbed our gear and asked Stephanie if she would be so kind as to do another down-to-the-ground lesson about why/how/where/when specific butterfly species lay their eggs and complete their life cycles in her Oak Park backyard.

My take-away from this butterfly egg hunt and biology lesson was that any of us gardeners can grow butterflies, from egg to release, in our own backyards... if we cultivate the proper butterfly host and nectar plants, plus (if we are serious about this) perhaps purchase a simple butterfly gardening kit for fun, as this butterfly gardening enthusiast and board member of West Cook Wild Ones has done.

Or, if all that is a bit overwhelming for you, well, it's natural to just sit back and let Mother Nature take her course. At least that is what I have decided to do.  So, in 30 days from me discovering those itsy, bitsy eggs on my milkweed's leaves means that I am now fairly certain that a few new Monarchs will arrive just in time to light on the blooms of my Buddleia davidii, (Butterfly Bush), where its big beautiful flowers attract and feed a bunch of butterflies, especially by mid-August when so many of them burst out into the light of day.

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Reader Comments

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Deb Quantock McCarey from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 14th, 2014 4:53 PM

That's great, Rachel. Today, a neighbor harvested all of her fennel and on it found a Black Swallowtail caterpillar. So, knowing I had dill here, she dropped that little guy over. While I was out putting it on the Dill, a mature Swallowtail fluttered by. Now, that was cool.

Rachel Benoit from Oak Park  

Posted: July 14th, 2014 11:29 AM

Wonderfully done, Deb and Stephanie! I had swallowtails for the first time this year, and hope to add more host plants soon.

Deb Quantock McCarey from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 14th, 2014 8:02 AM

On a FB post linked to this blog, a friend asked me if Monarchs eat all varieties of milkweed. I responded with a link, http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/help-monarchs-with-the-right-milkweeds/, then Stephanie Walquist piped in w/ more: "The Mama Monarch may have a preference for a particular type of milkweed; often it's based on what she ate as a caterpillar. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is one that is usually stated as not being used very often by Monarchs, and that is what I have usually observed in my own gardens. Swamp MIlkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is usually the preferred one. But this spring, I saw a female Monarch swoop right by a beautiful Swamp Milkweed and opt to lay her eggs on the A. tuberosa so that is probably what she developed on. Butterfly weed since it is such a "dry" plant makes the caterpillar have to eat more of it in order to grow. So, not all milkweeds are the same. Fascinating stuff. http://monarchnet.uga.edu/MonarchBiology/." Thanks, Stephanie!

Don Nekrosius from Oak Park  

Posted: July 13th, 2014 9:08 AM

Butterflies are magical beings and your guest offers quite specific methods and plant materials to support their presence in our lives. Thanks again, Deb, for opening your backyard on the garden "beet." Oh, and Kevin does a great job. I especially like his tracking the first flight of a monarch up up and away. Let's hope we all plant pollinator friendly hosts.

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