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Creating a Restaurant for Butterflies

Introduction to Butterfly Gardening

In this video and accompanying article, Matt shows you how to build a restaurant for common butterflies of North Texas. Starting with an overview of how to design a butterfly garden, he will talk about the importance of location, plant preferences of different butterflies, the benefits of offering extras such as water and treats, and other factors that go setting up a full service restaurant. Following that, he will describe some of the butterflies you're likely to see in your garden, along with the various host plants they prefer and why you need them. He'll conclude with a focus on how to breed your own Black Swallowtail butterflies.


Editor's note: The transcript below has been edited for clarity and readability.



Pizza Palace

The way I have designed my butterfly garden and what I think is probably the best way to approach it is to imagine that we are making a restaurant for a butterfly. What I'm going to be doing is specifically opening up a pizza place for butterflies.

 

Location

The most important thing about any restaurant is the location. In a restaurant you want a spot that has a lot of foot traffic or cars driving by. You want a spot where people are going to see it. How that translates into a butterfly garden is, you want a lot of flight, traffic. You want to put your garden right in the middle of things where butterflies are flying by. That means we should be putting our garden in an area that is as open as possible — open on all sides if we can, and open above, so there are no trees covering it. If we're in an area that is open all around, we should be in full sun as well. Most plants that butterflies like are going to prefer full sun (six hours of direct sunlight).

 

All that being said, you don't have to put it out in the open. Not all yards have spaces where you can just put a garden right in the middle. You can put them along a fence, for example, or put them in corners. But it's ideal to have as many sides open as possible and on top.


You can also do a part sun butterfly garden. There are some options that will still bloom in part sun. What's very hard to do, though, would be a shade butterfly garden or a smaller enclosed area. You're just not going to find a lot of plants for that. And you're not going to get a lot of butterfly traffic in that area. Those spots just wouldn't work well for something like this.

 

But since we're doing a butterfly garden and since I'm opening a pizza place for butterflies, I am putting my restaurant right in the middle of the yard. That will give me the most customers flying over the top. And it will allow for the the widest range of plants, or pizzas, that I can serve to these butterflies.

 

Running Your Shop

So to start out, there's a lot of different ways of running a pizza shop. There are big ones, small ones, and so forth.

 

You could technically take 100 Pentas, call these pepperoni Penta pizzas, and just plant 100 Pentas out there in a nice big mass. And that would technically be a butterfly garden. You'll get more butterflies — you'll see maybe two to three different types that enjoy this kind of thing. You won't get a wide range of different butterflies, but you'll definitely get more and you'll maybe see some you haven't seen in the past.

 

In restaurant terms, I could just serve pepperoni pizza. I'll have plenty of customers that like pepperoni pizza. I could run a successful business that way, but it's not going to be the best I could do.


If I want as many customers as possible, I need pepperoni pizza, I need supreme pizza, I need vegetarian pizza, I need all the different kinds of pizza to attract the most customers. So in terms of our butterfly garden, the more different varieties of blooming things that you have, the more different types of butterflies you're going to attract.


Maintain 5 Types of Blooms

I generally like to have at least five different types of blooms all going at the same time. That will give me a wide range of meals for all the different types of butterflies that show up. Even more than that will only add to the to the experience.

 

So now we know where we want to put our garden. We know they types of materials we will need and we know we need to offer a range of menu items. Now let's think about the quantities of things that we need.


Quantity Matters

We could technically just make two pizzas a day, a couple different types, serve those customers and be done. We could be a successful business doing that. Or, if we want to do a little bit better, we need to have a lot of pizzas ready. We need to have a lot of plants blooming at the same time so that we can serve more butterflies. So whenever you're picking out plants to put in your garden, don't just pick one. Some people have the habit of seeing a lot of different things that they like. Picking one of each and then planting that. That will work. It'll be OK. But what butterflies look for are group plantings. They look for masses of flowers. They don't notice as well, just one bloom sticking out. What they notice is a big swath of blooms. So that's what we need to aim for. We need multiples of the items that we're serving.

 

From a, from a design standpoint, generally people like to work in odd numbers. That means picking plants in groups of threes, fives, or nines, and so on.

 

Hours of Operation

Next let's talk about the hours of our operation. In the pizza example, my restaurant could only be open at lunchtime. I could get a good crowd during lunch. I could be pretty successful that way, but I'm not capturing all the customers I could capture by just staying open those hours.

 

How that translates into butterfly gardening is: We don't only want just what's in bloom in the spring. We need things that are in bloom all year long. That's how we're going to capture the most customers. In addition to planting things that look pretty in April or May, you need to plan for things that bloom in July and August as well as in September and October. Some of those may be hard to find in the spring. But keep in mind when you are laying out your garden that you not only want plants that bloom in the spring. You also want plants that bloom in the summer, and then you want things that bloom in the fall as well. That will capture the widest variety of butterflies to your garden.

 

The Dining Experience

Now let's talk about the dining experience. For the butterflies, it's going to be what they like to feed on.

 

In a restaurant, there are usually different types of seating arrangements. Some people like to sit at a tall bar-top table when they eat. Maybe you have a group that wants to sit at a mid-lower booth. And then you have kids who like to sit at the kids table.

 

That same kind of idea and concept translates into the butterfly garden. There are some butterflies that will only feed on plants that are up high. They're never going to check out the stuff in the middle and below, and vice versa. There will be some that only want plants that are down low. They'll never visit the plants that are up high. So we need to make sure we not only have a good selection of plants, we need to make sure we have a lot of those same plants. We need to make sure that their blooms are at different heights in the sky so that we're serving the maximum number of butterflies that we can.

 

Butterfly Garden Design

Now that we have an understanding of what we're what we're building here, I'm going to lay out a few plants the way I would do it. And this will kind of give you an idea of how to design A garden as well.

 

Start with Anchor Plants

In a garden, it is usually nice to have plants that are your anchor plants. Some people call them staple plants. These are plants that, no matter the time of the year, they pretty much look the same. When everything else is going dormant or changing, this is your consistency.


One that I like to use for that is called Abelia. Abelia is one that butterflies love. But not only that, it helps with the consistency that I'm going for by being somewhat evergreen. If our winters get really bad, it might drop some leaves. But this is what I'm going to use as my as my anchors in the garden to keep that consistency throughout the year.



Abelias come in a range of sizes from approximate 3ft. x 3 ft. to 6ft. x 6ft. and a variety of foliage colors with blooms of white or pale pink.


I'm just going make a line of them. And since I'm limited on space, some of these are going to be placed much closer together than you really want. Let’s keep that in mind.

 

Butterflies don't really care about how your plants are laid out in terms of the aesthetics. They care more about having mass plantings and the types of plants they find. So when you're designing your layout, you can focus on the eye appeal.

 

In restaurant terms, customers don't generally go to a restaurant because the building looks nice. They go for the food. It's the same way with your garden. The design is really for your own enjoyment.

 

So we have our three anchor points. These would be considered medium height tables, your booth tables. They're not up high. They're not down real low. Another anchor plant is the Butterfly Bush. Obviously, since it's in their name, it's one of their favorites.


Butterfly Bushes (Buddleias)
Butterfly Bushes (Buddleias) come in color options of white, pink, and purple, and have a wonderful fragrance when in bloom. Dwarf varieties are approximately 2 ft. x 2 ft. The regular size plant is approximately 3ft. wide x 5 ft. high.

At this stage of maturity, these would all be considered middle feeders. But as they grow they will become higher feeders.

 

This is a Augusta Duelberg salvia. This is one I personally have in my garden because I like the way it looks and the height that it gives you.


Augusta Duelberg Salvia
Augusta Duelberg Salvia

It's nice to incorporate are Texas natives. One of my favorites are Salvias. Another one that they love a lot are Black Eyed Susans. And you'll notice, at the very least, I'm doing pairings of three. That way I'm getting a nice swath of color rather than just a little dot. The Black Eyed Susans will get larger over time. The salvias are right in that middle range.


Black Eyed Susans
Black Eyed Susans

 

Now that I have some natives in there, I want to think about adding things to the garden, not so much for the butterflies, but adding things I like the look of.

 

It's hard to figure out what color butterflies like the best, but from what I've read it seems like yellows, pinks, whites, maybe purples. They say to avoid blues, but this somewhat blue and it seems to be one of their favorite plants. There's also another one called Gregg's Blue Mistflower that I know butterflies love, especially monarchs. So don't go too hard on the rule of what color they like. They like all colors.


Gregg's Mistflower
Gregg's Mistflower being visited by Queen butterflies.

 

Now that I have a good base, next is to add might be plants that are not native.  They may be plants that I perhaps I don't really enjoy the look of, but they are plants I know butterflies favor. An example is pincushion flower. I don't really care for it because it’s just a little unruly. But this is one of their favorites.



Pincushion Flower.
Pincushion Flower.

A good little tip on picking out flowers for butterflies: Anything that has a pad they can land on like the pincushion flower, will get them to stop almost automatically.

 

These are called yarrows. These are a nice hardy perennial. They come back easily. They can take full sun but can take part sun as well. And this phlox. Butterflies love phlox.


Yarrow
Yarrow performs well in sun or shade and offers many color options.
Phlox
Creeping Phlox is one of the types of Phlox loved by butterflies.

 

Catering to Black Swallowtails

For my pizza shop, I’m specifically going after Black Swallowtail butterflies. Based on what I planted here, they will show up because I have plenty of stuff for them to like here. But I want to grow my own swallowtail butterflies. I want to get as many as I can and the way we do that is by introducing host plants to our garden.

 

Introduce Host Plants

Host plants for the Black Swallowtail are mainly fennel and dill, parsley and rue. What I have found is that they seem to like fennel best. But you can plant all this in the same area. One might lay on the rue, most might lay on the fennel, one might lay on the dill. That is what I found. But they they will use all of this.


Black Swallowtail caterpillar on parsley
Black Swallowtail caterpillar on parsley



Rue
Rue

 

The rue is a tender perennial. It may come back from year to year, but usually will die when a freeze hits it. The others are annuals that die in winter.

 

When incorporating a host plant area, you could mix them in if you like. What I found is that the butterflies seem to prefer a designated spot for laying their eggs rather than having to move from one area to another.

 

So now that we have that specifically for black swallowtails, I could add in a few other host plants for other butterflies as well.

 

These are mallows, mallows are a host plant for a good wide range of butterflies. So maybe I just want to throw these in my little host plant area as well just to add something in more, add a little bit different texture and attract different butterflies besides just one.


Hibiscus moscheutos, or Rose Mallow
Hibiscus moscheutos, or Rose Mallow

Technically, this is a butterfly garden. It will give you everything you need to get the widest range of butterflies and everything you need to start growing your own butterflies too, if you want.

 

There are two other things you can add that don't have to do with plants at all. And they can make a drastic difference in the amount of butterflies that you have. So we're going to talk about those right now.

 

Serve Beverages

I need to figure out a way to serve them beverages. What they need is just something that will absorb moisture without being wet. They don't like to walk in deep water. The way they taste, drink, and feel is with their feet. They like to feel moisture on their feet. They don't want deep moisture. So the way you achieve that and the way I like to do is just get a little saucer.  You can probably have these laying around in the backyard. I fill mine with expanded shale. You can use any kind of rock though – pea gravel, sand -- whatever you want to use.

 

What should you fill it up with? Any kind of water is going to work great. If you can, avoid tap water. Just like your plants, non-treated water is better for them. For example, rainwater or filtered water are better.

 

I like Topo Chico. This is a good high quality water. It is high in minerals and that is really what the butterflies are after. They want the minerals.

 

Don’t fill your saucer up to where it's overflowing. You want it to be saturated, but if there's any kind of puddling, and if they land on this and they feel like they're getting wet, they’ll fly right off. They don’t like to get their wings wet.

 

Try to drain off any excess water to where it feels like it is just a wet rock.


Besides Topo Chico, you can use Gatorade, honey water, diluted organic juice. You can even use beer.

 

Butterflies like the Red Admiral are very much attracted to a nice hoppy beer. Beer is an excellent source of nutrients for them. Nutrients and sugars: that’s what they’re going for.

 

How to Place Your Saucer

Ideally you would place several saucers throughout your garden. Not hidden among the plants, but off to the sides out in the open. The more of these you have, the better the experience the butterflies will have.


Imagine you are at a restaurant and there is only one small space to go to for your drinks. It could get very crowded.

 

Provide Snacks

Another thing to provide are treats. Set out rotting fruit. As the fruit rots, it releases sugars, and that's what the butterflies like. Good fruit choices would be bananas, apples, or watermelons. Things to avoid would be citrus. They don’t like limes, lemons, things like that.


As the fruit rots, it ferments and the butterflies can get a little drunk. So if you want to get butterflies drunk, you can put some of that out and watch them fly around. It doesn't hurt them. It’s not bad for them, but you will notice them acting a little different if they've been eating a lot of it.


Problems with Ants

If you put out fruit, ants are going to happen. One thing that can kind of help mitigate that is to take the fruit and set it on your basking stone to get it up off the ground. But ants are unavoidable. Keep an eye on it to prevent the ants from getting onto the butterflies. If you notice them, you may want to put out a fresh plate.

 

Add a Butterfly Lounge

There’s one last thing we can put in the garden — more so for us than for the butterflies. This is going to be a spot where butterflies congregate. I like to think of it as a spot for socializing and things like that. That’s what I’m want in my restaurant is a nice little lounge area. It’s called a basking stone. A basking stone is any kind of stone material: a statue or any kind of solid object placed in the sun where butterflies can land on it, open their wings, and absorb the sun. They need to heat up their bodies to fly so you will see, especially early in the morning, butterflies will just be on a solid object in the sun with their wings open.

 

Place your basking stone in an area that is easy to access for taking pictures. You’ll get multiple butterflies on your basking stone at the same time. And it’s a great opportunity to notice different flight behaviors.

 

You might see a male and a female hanging out on the same stone. You might see mating flights or flirting type flight patterns, which tend to happen over the basking stone area. You’ll get to see territorial type flight patterns, usually over basking areas as well. So it's just a nice thing way to create more entertainment for yourself as well as to give the butterflies a place to relax and, maybe socialize.


Common North Texas Butterflies

Now we're going to go over a few of the most common butterflies you’ll find in North Texas.

 

Black Swallowtail

I’ll start off with my favorite one, just in terms of the beauty of it, how easy it is to raise, and how often you see it. And that is the Black Swallowtail butterfly. This is the one we planted our host garden for.


Black Swallowtail butterfly
Black Swallowtail butterfly

 

The Black Swallowtail is a larger butterfly, which makes them easier to spot. Their flight pattern is a gliding one, rather than more spastic. Black is usually the first color you’ll notice with some yellow banding at the bottom. The eggs are very small — about half the size of a doughnut sprinkle — and yellowish orange in color. Fennel is usually where you'll find them — usually towards the tips of the plant.

 

As the caterpillar emerges, it starts out black with spines. The spines may appear threatening, but they’re safe to touch. As the caterpillar ages, it sheds its skin and its spines, changing to a green and black striped pattern.

 

Giant Swallowtail

Next is the Giant Swallowtail, which looks very similar to the Black Swallowtail, but you’ll notice more yellow in it. And it is going to be bigger than the Black Swallowtail.



Gulf Fritillary

The Gulf Fritillary is a medium sized butterfly. It is very bright orange in color. What you'll normally notice is that it has a metallic looking underside to the wing. That's what usually catches your eye. It's another one that has a spiny caterpillar that looks like it's poisonous, but it's safe to touch. It's favorite host plant is the Passion Vine.


Gulf Fritillary
Gulf Fritillary

Monarch

Here’s what the Monarch looks like. This is one of the more famous butterflies. It is another larger sized butterfly. It’s recognized by it orange and black banding on both sides. The edges are trimmed in black with white spots. The caterpillar looks very similar to the black swallowtail as well.



 

Question Mark

The Question Mark is a pretty unique just based on the shape of the wing. That's most likely what you're going to notice first out of the color or anything else is just how different the wing looks compared to other butterflies. The host plant for the question marks are mainly trees, so they like the elms, they like the hackberry trees. They will also use nettles though too as well. In the past, where I've raised these has been on elms and hackberries. And like many caterpillars, it looks dangerous, but it’s not.



 

Breeding Black Swallowtails

Generally black swallowtails start laying eggs in mid-spring and will continue for the next couple months. Each mother lays only a few eggs per plant. One reason for that is to improve the survival rate of her brood. If she were to lay all of her eggs on one plant, that plant is not going to support her whole family. That's another reason why it helps to have multiples of things. The more host plants you have, the more likely the mother butterfly is going to lay more eggs. Also if any plants are damaged or destroyed, at least some of the eggs are likely to survive

 

One statistic I read said that on average only 1% to 5% of butterfly eggs laid in the wild reach adulthood. In another study, they monitored 500 butterfly eggs and found only about 2% actually survived to adulthood.

 

Some become victims of predatory wasps that feed on caterpillars. Others may get knocked to the ground and are unable to find their way back onto the plant. For the most part birds leave them alone. Their color or spines may scare birds off.

 

After the egg has been laid on the host plant, in about three to nine days the caterpillar will hatch. Once the caterpillar hatches, it’s going to eat the egg casing it was born in. After that it will start eat the host plant. It will feed for up to the next 30 days. Keep that if it looks like there is not enough foliage on the plant, you may want to buy more fennel.

 

During that 30 days, the caterpillar will outgrow it’s own body and shed its skin, going through five different stages, called instars. In the first stage the swallowtail starts out as a tiny little black bug, then increases in size. As it ages, it goes from being black to green in color. They max out at about two inches long. During this time, they stay on the host plant. The only time it may come off the plant is if it gets knocked off by something.


Black swallowtail caterpillar
Black Swallowtail caterpillar

When it is time for it to form its chrysalis, it will leave the host plant to find somewhere to roost.

 

Whenever I notice an egg on a host plant, I bring it in. I take a cutting of the plant, put it in a Topo Chico bottle and raise it in there. You may want to put a paper plate or something under the bottle to catch some of the droppings that they’re making. That’s also a great fertilizer, so I throw it back out into the garden.

 

As they get closer to forming their chrysalis, it’s smart to contain them in something that they can move around in and find a spot to make their chrysalis.



Stages of Black Swallowtail. Photo: Ansel Oommen, Bugwood.org
Stages of Black Swallowtail. Photo: Ansel Oommen, Bugwood.org

I have purchased insect bags. It's just a net bag that you can zip up. The important thing is to offer something that they can crawl on to get comfortable and then start to make their chrysalis. If you don’t contain them in something, you may not know where they’ve gone. Then, a few weeks later, you may open up your closet to find one in there.

 

From the time they go into their chrysalis until they emerge as butterfly can take anywhere from nine to 20 days.

 

The cool thing about Black Swallowtails is they don't migrate. Instead, they have a dormancy process.

 

If you bring them in to raise them, you'll find that you will have a lot of chrysalises all getting ready at the same time, all from the same mother. Let’s say you have 10 chrysalises that are all going to open in the next few days. Most of them hatch without a hitch. Then there may be one or two that don’t do anything at all. Then several months later they’ll come out just randomly.

 

Most chrysalises are green. Each one will have two points and the top and one point at the bottom with points along its back or a ridge. Those that seem to want to over winter are a tan or brown color. That’s not always true. So it’s not an absolute rule but a general rule.


Conclusion

Creating a restaurant for butterflies is a great way to learn about and enjoy the fascinating world of lepidoptera while also learning more about Texas pollinator plants and their needs. Follow Marshall Grain's blog and Youtube channel to expand your knowledge of organic gardening in North Texas.

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