The Butterfly Garden

The butterfly is a beautiful addition to your garden.  Because they can be easily grown and observed, because they occur all across North America, and because they are so beautiful, they are well studied in homeschool.  Here are some ideas for doing a unit on lepidoptera, butterflies.

Start with a trip to your dictionary and look up the words: butterfly, lepidoptera, moth, scales, wings, proboscis, and antennae.  Next, check out a book about butterflies and learn about their life cycles.  Then, go to your garden shop and ask about plants which attract butterflies and about the gardens they love best.  Now you are ready to put together your butterfly garden.

Planning your garden

There are a few qualities a garden should have in order to become a place which will attract butterflies.  The location should be sunny and have some protection from the wind.   Although butterflies look delicate, they are stronger than they appear, but wind will tend to carry them easily past the plants you want them to inhabit.  They do bask in the sun on low walls, log piles, and stones, all places of shelter and sun.  Butterflies have predators as well and low growing shrubs and rocks can provide some protection.

Butterflies need sources of rich nectar and are attracted to plants which smell sweet.  Choose plants like the butterfly bush or the coreopsis which will provide these things by growing beautiful flowers all season long.  The most obvious plants are local wildflowers; for example, honeysuckles, lupines, black-eyed susans, and, in Texas, bluebonnets.  See the list below the post for suggested plants.  In your local area there may not be many of those plants listed here, but do not worry as there are some generic plants which will probably be found either in nearby fields or at your plant store.  Other sources of butterfly attracting plants are mail order suppliers.  Mass plantings of colorful and sweet smelling plants are great for your butterfly garden.  Creeping phlox which cascades over walls is a good attractor as in Spanish heather.

Another, often overlooked plant type which must be present in the garden is the edible plant; edible, that is, for the caterpillars.  When you attract butterflies, they will lay eggs for the next generation of butterflies.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae (caterpillars) must have food so you need to provide for them.  Members of the carrot family, parsley family, lettuces, celery, and other herbs are feasts to caterpillar.  Don’t begrudge them the food because they represent your next group of butterflies.  Host plants will supply many needs of the butterfly in all of its life stages.  Some of these are Butterfly Weed (providing for the Monarch butterfly among others), herbs like dill, parsley, and fennel (which the Black Swallowtail enjoys), and the Tulip Tree (a home for the Tiger Swallowtail).  Willow, clover, milkweed, sassafras, Queen Anne’s Lace, and passion flower are other host plants.

Remember, too, that butterflies are insects and because of this are sensitive to insecticides and pesticides which you may be tempted to use in the garden.  If you need to use something to save your fruit trees or whatever, try to limit the area it may affect.  Only spray the effected area as overspray  will kill your butterflies.  According to the Wise Garden Encyclopedia, even herbicides and fungicides will harm the insects you want to cultivate.

So, now you have a garden which has attracted many different kinds of butterflies.  What do you do next?  Everything is not known about butterflies, their habits, their cycles.  This means that you may discover something important about butterflies.  So, keep a journal on what you see in your garden.  Record the numbers and varieties of the species you see.  Try to answer the questions: what, where, why, when, how, how many, and for how long, in your journal and as completely as you can.  Make colored drawings for your notebook.

Study the behavior of the butterfly. What are the favorite flowers to which each type of butterfly you see is most attracted?  Do they seem to migrate from yard to yard, or even farther?  How long do you notice one butterfly in your yard?

Study the biology of the butterfly: What are the butterflies’ sizes, colors, and flying characteristics?  How do they see and smell?  Can they recognize the colors of the flowers or it is only smell which attracts them?

What are the life cycle stages of your butterflies?  Study the adults and try to find the eggs they lay.  Keep careful watch over the eggs until they hatch, then observe the larvae.  Make sure that the larvae are getting plenty to eat and then watch over the chrysalises they produce.  At the correct time, perhaps ten days, the beautiful butterfly will come out of the chrysalis and begin to fly.  Keep records of the stages and the number of days each lasts in your journal.

Collect more butterflies for your garden: Go out into the field or forest and look for chrysalises hanging from limbs, leaves or rocks.  Collect them carefully and place them into a vivarium (a place for live specimen).  Later, when they come out you can place them in your garden on some good tasting (to larvae) plants for them to grow and mature.  Another way to collect butterflies for your garden is to look for caterpillars to place on the parsley or carrot plants.  Although some of them are not the prettiest thing in the garden, they mature into something of beauty, so remember that when you see them eating up your salad greens.

Observe the four stages of the life cycle: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (within the chrysalis), and adult (butterfly).  Make drawings or take photos to record the events.  To photograph a butterfly, you will find it best if you collect the caterpillar and wait it out until the adult emerges from the chrysalis.  For a brief time, the tissues have not hardened sufficiently for flight and the butterfly can be photographed fairly easily.

The butterfly is an insect and so is made up of three body parts: the head, the thorax and the abdomen.  The parts are segmented with the wigs usually coming from second and third segments of the thorax.  The head has compound eyes, segmented antennas, and a proboscis.  This proboscis can unroll into a long sucking tube which allows the butterfly to feed upon nectar.
If you wish to preserve some of the butterflies, catch them with a butterfly net, place them in a killing jar, dry them on a spreading board and pin them, labeled, in a box prepared for the collection.  Be sure to write on a slip of paper pinned with the specimen, the pertinent data:  place found, name of the butterfly species, common name, when the specimen was collected, and by whom.
The homeschooler has an advantage in the study of butterflies since they are usually active during the day.  There are many types of butterflies, over 700 varieties in North America, so there are plenty to study.  Build a butterfly garden, get out that journal, and begin a study of beautiful creatures which can last a lifetime!

Plants which will attract and feed adult butterflies:
This list has been adapted from The Pike Gardening flyer on Butterfly Gardens and The Wise Garden Enclyclopedia.

Asclepias (milkweed, butterfly weed)
Black-eyed Susan
Butterfly Bush (buddleia)
Butterfly Weed
Cardinal flower
Coreopsis (Tickseed)
Corn flower
Daucus (Queen Anne’s Lace, carrot)
Dianthus (pinks, Sweet William)
Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower)
Gaillardia (blanket flower)
Mock orange
Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan)
Syringa (Lilac)
White or pink viburnum


The Wise Garden Encyclopedia by HarperCollins Publishers.  An alphabetic resource for anything to do with gardens, plants, and planting.  The authors have included hints for growing and other tidbits of useful information hidden within the formality of a glossary format.

Butterflies and Moths: A Golden Guide This book is a must have for the homeschooler who is interested in butterflies.  Discussing the life cycles, habitats, migrations, and food sources, the book provides a fairly complete text.  The majority of the book is, of course, identification of American butterflies and moth in full color.


Butterflies Worth Knowing by Dr. Clarence M. Weed.  A wonderful introduction tobutterflies covering their cycles, habitats, structure, and going into much detail about some of the more common butterflies of North America.  It is an older book which can be found in libraries.

Botany by Kim Wright   A brand new unit study written for homeschoolers but which could be used by any school, this 133 page book has lots of activities and lists of resources and other ideas to use in a study of plants. (even has flashcards)  There are questions to answer in the study, instructions for an organised plan, vocabulary list, and lab instructions; basically everything you need but the text, two lab books, and a few materials, to do a semester on plants.  Throw out the biology book for a semester and use this unit study on plants.

The Butterfly Site Visit this website to plan your butterfly garden by area, and then order the appropriate plants or seeds.  Lots of good tips on butterfly gardening!

Insect Collector’s Backpack Kit.  This great little backpack comes with everything you need to collect butterflies or any insect.  Sold by Home Science Tools, it has a net, Audubon guide, magnifier, killing jar, pins, and a bunch more.  Check here for all their insect collecting supplies.

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