Originally created 02/12/99

Get the right plants for butterfly watching

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. -- Butterfly watching ranks as one of gardening's most delightful perks, and you can enjoy and enhance it even in small places. The secret is planting the right plants rich in nectar and perfume.

Many of us are familiar with buddleia, known as "butterfly bush" for the numbers of the beautiful creatures it attracts. But there are other plants, like plain old milkweed, worth knowing about as butterfly lures.

A variety of such plants and other aspects of this pastime are explored in a revised and updated manual just issued by the Xerces Society in association with the Smithsonian Institution and published by Sierra Club Books. The book ($24, softcover) is titled "Butterfly Gardening, Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden," and was first published in 1990.

The Xerces Society, a conservationist organization headquartered in Portland, Ore., is named for the now-extinct Xerces Blue Butterfly. Wiped out by urban expansion, the last known specimens were taken in 1941 at the Presidio military base in San Francisco. A French entomologist named the butterfly for the Persian King Xerxes, but with the French spelling "Xerces," which was retained.

The volume contains fine color closeups of butterflies, a master list of plant species that attract them, seed and plant sources, a bibliography of books and periodicals, essays by experts on ecology, butterflies and other insects and tips on butterfly watching and photography. There are diagrams and designs for small and large butterfly gardens and a key to geographical regions showing which plants are effective where.

The tone is set in an essay by British entomologist Miriam Rothschild of the banking family. Her uncle, Walter, assembled a famous collection of 2.25 million butterflies and moths.

She says, "I doubt a garden can ever be too large, certainly not from the butterfly's viewpoint. But so many of us are forced to be satisfied with a small patch of ground that it is an agreeable thought that butterflies can be attracted to tiny gardens as well as large ones. A buddleia planted against your house, a patch of red valerian growing out of a wall, or a lavender bush constitutes a true butterfly lure."

Ms. Rothschild says it is clear that butterflies prefer heavy perfume to delicate scents. The color and perfume advertise the presence of carbohydrates, which the butterflies need to sustain their energy for flight, she explains.

In another essay, author and lecturer Jo Brewer calls milkweed "one of the most important of all butterfly nectar plants" and says that in her Massachusetts garden "we have recorded 18 species of New England butterflies nectaring at this plant, including the female Monarch, which takes nectar from and lays her eggs on milkweed."

Among other plants she mentions dame's rocket, garden phlox and New England asters to provide continuous bloom from early spring to autumn. She also had success with red zinnias and orange marigolds.

It's one thing to attract butterflies, but other talents and expertise are needed to identify them. A good way to start is by estimating size - large like a Monarch, medium like a Painted Lady, small like skippers and blues. Xerces Society founder Robert Michael Pyle gives some tips. Sharp eyes, a net, a good pair of tweezers, a hand-held lens, close-focus binoculars and a notebook are some requirements Pyle lists.

"When observing butterflies, remember to move slowly and fluidly," he warns. "Rapid movements put butterflies to flight."

He says "a little practice perfects usage of a net. It is critical to follow through so that the target insect is swept deep into the net bag. If you are gentle and use care and forceps, you can examine butterflies and then release them without harm."

In time, Pyle says, the budding lepidopterist "will get to know that swallowtails and fritillaries have a special fondness for thistle and mint nectar, while hairstreaks love dogbane and milkweed. Crescent-spots flap and glide, but skippers, of similar color and size, fly with quick jerky movements. Soon, basic discrimination is easy, and you become a sharper observer in the process of having fun."

EDITOR'S NOTE: George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.


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