This article was taken from our archives. It originally appeared in the March 1995 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did in print originally.
When I was a little girl, I collected caterpillars. I loved them-big, fat green ones with false ‘eyes’, black spiky ones; yellow ones. It didn’t matter what they looked like; most varieties had a place in a jar on my windowsill. The excitement of metamorphosis would enchant me for ages as I watched caterpillars eat, pupate and hatch into butterflies. I even groomed them gently with the stigmata and stamens from morning-glory flowers.
Recently, I decided to indulge my butterfly passion once again by planting a ‘butterfly garden’. It may sound very grand, but it’d actually extremely simple. Butterfly gardening simply means luring the beautiful insects to your garden by planting the host plant for the larval cycle, as well as flowering plants for the butterflies to feed from. All you need to do is incorporate certain shrubs, annuals, even weeds -and the butterflies will come. It may take time, but eventually they’ll be there. Since butterflies have very short lives we actually help them survive by providing food plants for these insects and their larvae. Children are fascinated by the whole butterfly/moth life-cycle, bur they aren’t the only ones. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t stopped in their tracks when a monarch floats across their garden.
Bermuda has few, butterflies that live or visit regularly, but they are certainly worth cultivating. Of the five common species in Bermuda, our garden is visited by the monarch (red-orange ,with black marking), gulf fritillary (orange and black), cloudless sulphur (yellow) and buckeye (brown with ‘eyes’). The cabbage white is very rarely seen, because to date I’ve avoided its food supply. Three years in a row, we’ve also seen a red admiral.
When we started our butterfly gardening three years ago, the first thing we did was to plant a passion flower vine. The passion flower is the host plant for the gulf fritillary caterpillar range- orange caterpillars with black spikes all over. Usually, they let the vine flower bloom before completely defoliating it, so we get to enjoy the blossom and the butterflies it feeds. My passion flower climbs through a hibiscus hedge, so the damage done by caterpillars isn’t so noticeable. But often, the larval host plant can be completely ruined by caterpillar munchings- don’t plan on it being a specimen shrub.
The gulf fritillary larva was the first caterpillar my children saw and the were fascinated by it-even at two years old. In the course of one summer, we observed every part of the butterfly life-cycle except the actual egg hatching. The children watched the caterpillars spin their chrysalis, hatch out, and sometimes held the new butterflies on their fingers-it was a fantastic experience.
The monarch butterfly must have the prettiest life-cycle around. It lays perfect, tiny green eggs, which hatch into black and-yellow-striped caterpillars. These spin satiny green-and-gold chrysalids, which hatch into orange-and-black butterflies. I never cease to be amazed by the whole process. It’s easy to get them into the garden-all you have to do is plant milkweed.
I obtained one solitary milkweed seedpod two years go, planted the seeds in a pot, then transplanted the resulting seedlings into the garden. (Now I just toss seeds on to the ground, walk away and let them sprout.) I babied the seedlings until they flowered in the beds. Milkweed grows anywhere from six inches to two-feet high and the dark green leaves are topped with clusters of red and yellow flowers. The very first monarch appeared as the milkweed flowered and soon we had caterpillars everywhere. Indeed, they ran out of food and many died, but we saw a dozen butterflies hatch. We also supplied the kids’ nursery school with caterpillars and milkweed. Last spring, about eight butterflies arrived; a month later, a total of 56 chrysalids were hanging on the nearby bushes. I became fanatical, rushing out every morning to count and check their well-being. A few died, but one glorious week we had 14 butterflies a day hatch. A second smaller crop of butterflies flew in September.
Milkweed can be considered a perennial and can be cut back hard twice a year-right after the caterpillars are
finished is a good time. (At this point, all you’ll have are bare ticks anyway.) I collect seeds from the pods before they float away, so I can control where the plants pop up. Last year, I sowed seeds everywhere in the hopes of having hundreds of butterflies this spring. Pods usually appear between January and March. The second batch of pods in September tend to get eaten, so collect the seeds early.
The monarchs are my favourite butterfly, but this year we’ve also seen the cloudless sulphur caterpillars and the buckeye quite allot. The cloudless sulphur caterpillars- green, yellow, or a combination-feed on the golden shower tree. They turn into pretty leaf-shaped green chrysalids, which are so well camouflaged, they’re practically impossible to find in the wild. I always bring a couple of caterpillars inside in bug jars so we can see them hatch. Buckeyes become black spiky caterpillars that live in the grass and turn into very small brown chrysalids-another one to bring inside to watch.
Besides the food plants-milkweed, passion flower and golden shower -there are many other plants with which you can attract butterflies. Butterflies eat flowers’ nectar and seem to be attracted more by flower colour than anything else. Large clusters of fat flowers, single flowers and tubular flowers are all popular; the favourite colours seem to be red, orange, yellow and purple. Butterflies find large masses of colour more easily, so plant in groups if possible.
Good Bermuda butterfly plants are pentas (also the food plant for the sphinx moth), lantana, coreopsis, buddleia, plumbago and Asclepias (butterfly weed or tennis ball bush). Honeysuckle, Mexican sunflowers, (Tithonia) and euryops (daisy bushes) also seem to be popular. Last summer, our butterflies loved the clerodendron vine and yellow day lilies.
You could also plant annuals such as salvia, snapdragon , cosmos, marigolds, nicotiana (tobacco plant), phlox and candytuft. Herbs such as lavender and borage are good, as are vegetables like scarlet runner beans. The cabbage white likes cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. Fields along the South Shore swarm with cabbage whites in December and January when all these veggies are in the ground.
Don’t forget the night-flying moths, either. There are lots of moths in Bermuda, but my favourites are the sphinx moths. Their caterpillar feed on pentas and poinsettia and are lovely fat greens ones that make great temporary pets for children. The feeding moths at dusk look just like hummingbirds; we’ve seen them hovering above plumbago, honeysuckle and the night-scented spider lilies. Another exotic looking species in the huge sphinx moth, which lays its eggs on the frangipani tree, the caterpillars (dubbed “horn worms”) are enormous with red black and yellow stripes.
Butterflies don’t like chemicals, so avoid the use of insecticides and herbicides. They like water and sunshine to stay warm-flat areas where they can do this are recommended in butterfly gardening books although I’ve found the butterflies in our garden just sit on big flowers. The Mexican sunflowers make for good sunbathing.
Butterfly gardening is extremely easy and very rewarding. With just a little time and effort-maybe nothing more than throwing a few milkweed seeds around- you can enjoy the magical touch of colour and life that a butterfly brings briefly to the garden.