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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Enticing butterflies to visit your north Texas yard

Black Swallowtail

The life of a butterfly is a perpetual gamble.  In a span of a week or two, a female will lay hundreds of eggs, but only a very few will become adult butterflies. Most will die. Knowing the chacteristics of north Texas butterflies will greatly increase your chances of having them visit your landscape,  i.e. know “what makes a butterfly tick”.

About 440 species of butterflies have been reported in Texas. They are all vulnerable to disease and predators during the larval (caterpillar) stage in the spring. Just before this time, the mother looks for what are called “host plants” to lay eggs on. The caterpillars must be able to find the correct host plants. The absence of these plants affects the number of butterflies. Sometimes the host plant is considered a “weed” and is destroyed by the gardener often with indiscriminate use of herbicides or insectiodeds. Out of each 500 eggs a butterfly lays, fewer than five survive typical backyard conditions.

This pathetic survival rate of under 1% is frustrating to landowners who try to attract the beauties by planting the host plants necessary for laying eggs and feeding larvae. Birds can be a small problem (because they have been known to feed on butterflies) but toads, frogs, lizards, rodents and snakes hunt butterflies too. By far the biggest problem, however, is humans. It is also the problem that’s most easily solved.

Red Admiral
The correct kinds of host plants for north Texas butterflies include lantana, milkweed, yarrow, parsley, mistflower, butterfly weed and all native grasses. (The term “weed” merely stems from an Old English word of the 9th century meaning “uncultivated”) A main criterion is that you need a ”mass” of the same plant species (at least a dozen), not just one or two. Plants that are native to this area are spotted more easily by butterflies, due to genetics.

If you’re serious about attracting them nothing should liberally be sprayed or spread on your landscape that’s poisonous or artificial. “Spot-spray” only in spots where there’s a specific problem. Forget most weed-killers and pesticides (butterflies and caterpillars are insects after all). Caterpillars are also often confused with more destructive bugs. For example, a homeowner might squash a green, yellow & black caterpillar on a parsley plant without realizing it will soon become a gorgeous Eastern black Swallowtail.

If you want to attract butterflies into your yard, it’s wise to remember the old saying about not counting your chickens before they hatch. Even if you do all the right things the butterflies may not come in throngs. Maybe some neighbors have sprayed a whole lot of poisons or maybe a good piece of a forest in the mountains of Mexico was cut down… it’s always a gamble!  But if you don’t give it a good try it’s a certainty that your yard will be as attractive is the Sahara Desert.


OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at in Denton.

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