Gardeners' Dirt: If you plant it, they will come, and what a show it will be
By Suzann Herricks - Victoria County Master GardenerEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
April 10, 2014 at midnight
Updated April 9, 2014 at 11:10 p.m.
The Master Gardeners of Victoria County aim to educate the public on the marvels of nature through various programs. Some of that marvel can be seen with the butterflies in the Victoria Educational Gardens near the Victoria Regional Airport.
Visit the gardens to see the show. The following are ways to attract butterflies to your own garden.
Provide for life cycle
To attract butterflies, you must have two things: First, flowers that provide nectar for adult butterflies and second, host plants in which eggs can be laid. Host plants also provide food for the caterpillars to form into chrysalises from which butterflies emerge.
Mother Nature has a fascinating way of providing for its inhabitants by timing many flowers' bloom cycles in conjunction with the life cycles of the organisms that live and feed off of them. But what are the best choices, and which butterflies will they attract?
A visit to the gardens will provide the answer. Enter at the main gate - just across from the airport tower. The gate is always unlocked, and entry is free to the public.
Butterflies need warmth to begin their daily flight, so come around 10 a.m. or later to see the greatest numbers. As you enter, the butterfly garden is to the immediate right and filled with plants that attract butterflies.
Best plant choices
It's a host and nectar plant for monarch butterflies, our state insect, and also for queens, a butterfly often mistaken for a monarch. Milkweed (Asclepias) is one of the best plant choices for butterflies. A chemical compound in milkweed develops a poison in caterpillars that repels predators.
In the fall, monarchs make their yearly migration from far North on their way to nesting grounds in Mexico. Because many areas of milkweed have been destroyed in the name of progress, their numbers have dropped dramatically.
You can be a part of preventing their decline by planting milkweed in your garden. It will self-sow and return the following year from seeds dropped from maturing plants. Master Gardeners have planted drifts of it throughout the Victoria Educational Gardens.
Another host and nectar plant, the passion vine (passiflora incarnata) winds across the fence that hides the Secret Garden in Victoria Educational Gardens. It provides for the entire life cycle of the Gulf fritillary and zebra longwing.
They lay eggs, hatch, eat, form chrysalises and hatch on the passion vine. Even though their caterpillars feed voraciously, the vine will grow right back and continue blooming.
A bed of Turk's cap (malvaviscus arboreus) thrives next to the passion vine at Victoria Educational Gardens.
It invites both hummingbirds and butterflies. The Gulf fritillary, black swallowtail and painted lady are often seen gathering nectar. Lovely yellow sulphurs are frequent visitors.
Gregg's mistflower (Eupatorium greggii) grows just outside the butterfly house in Victoria Educational Gardens. It lies beyond the gate leading into the Secret Garden. Because developing butterflies have many enemies, Master Gardeners frequently transfer caterpillars into this protected structure. Parsley, milkweed and passion vine are grown in pots and provide necessary food. Once the metamorphosis is finished, butterflies are released through the hinged roof.
A Texas native, Gregg's mistflower sports clusters of light blue, fuzzy flowers that are so thick they seem like mist. It is almost impossible to count the numerous species of butterflies that hover above it.
It is an aggressive grower but is easily contained by thinning. There are other species of mistflower, but Gregg's blooms for a longer period and is the preferred choice for a home garden.
Herbs attract black swallowtails
In the vegetable garden, dill, fennel and parsley serve as host plants for the black swallowtail. You may find gorgeous black and yellow caterpillars munching happily. Although gardeners don't like to see insects eating their crops, identifying a caterpillar will prevent the destruction of something destined to become a beautiful butterfly.
Other plant choices
Butterflies like short-tubed plants that produce rich nectar. Verbena and lantana are hard to beat for attraction to butterflies and ease of growth. Others are phlox, purple coneflower, penta, fall aster and duranta. These are planted throughout the gardens to attract the many species of local butterflies.
If you don't have room for a garden, consider planting several pots of flowers and placing them at the edge of your porch or patio. Or simply visit Victoria Educational Gardens, stay for a while and enjoy the butterfly show.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.