Butterflies have charmed and delighted people, both young and old for generations. The fascinating transformation of earthbound caterpillars to winged butterflies captures the imagination like little else. For young children, a butterfly garden has tremendous potential to give them the chance to observe growth, cycles, and change, as well as the opportunity to understand how a creature fits into its environment.
Unlike manicured gardens which are beautiful, but static, butterfly gardens are full of activity, even more so if allowed to get a bit weedy. When planting a butterfly garden you may find that you get more winged wildlife than you bargained for. Hummingbirds will visit tithonia flowers as often as butterflies, and songbirds will appreciate the seeds of cosmos long after butterflies have enjoyed the nectar. Furthermore, butterflies and caterpillars themselves are food for many kinds of birds.
Planting a Butterfly Garden
Creating a butterfly garden is not difficult. Butterflies will visit the garden if you plant fragrant, nectar-filled flowers along a sunny wall or fence. If your budget allows, start your garden with seedlings from a garden center. If funds are limited, try starting the garden from seeds; they are more economical and easier for young children who can simply toss handfuls of seed into a garden bed and then lightly rake them into the soil. If you have the space, why not plan the layout of the garden to look like a butterfly? Flat, river-washed stones laid out as a path between the two wings of planting beds will serve as the body of the butterfly; it will also be a spot for butterflies to bask in the morning sun.
Attracting Butterflies to the Garden
Butterflies are especially fond of mud puddles with decaying fruit or manure. Even if you don't want to provide muddy puddles of rotting fruit, a plastic tray filled with sandy soil somewhere in the garden will serve the same purpose. As you water the garden, the tray will fill with water and become a mud puddle where butterflies can draw moisture.
To create a thriving butterfly habitat, you'll need to grow plants for the caterpillars as well as for the adults they will become. Dill, fennel, parsley, violet, clover, milkweed, thistle, and hop vine attract caterpillars while adult butterflies are attracted to the following:
- Bachelors button or cornflower—Centaurea cyanus
- Butterfly weed—Asclepias tuberosa
- Butterfly bush—Buddleia davidii
- Crown pink—Lynchis
- New York aster—Aster novi-belgii
- Purple coneflower—Echinaeca
- Stonecrop—Sedum spectible
- Sweet rocket—Hesperis matronalis
- Mexican sunflower—Tithonia rotundifolia
Consider taking your butterfly garden one step further by including edible plants. Children will enjoy this direct connection with the natural environment. Some good choices are daylilies, redwood sorrel, carnations, hollyhocks, nasturtium, squash blossoms, and rose petals. Marigolds and violets are enjoyed by kids and butterflies, while scarlet runner bean blossoms are attractive to hummingbirds as well as children. Always impress upon children to ask an adult’s permission before eating any garden flowers. Of all the garden flowers listed above, only milkweed is slightly toxic.
When children experience a direct connection with nature they discover a sense of beauty, balance, and creativity. Facilitate this connection with nature by creating a butterfly garden that allows children’s spirits to take flight and soar with the winged animals they observe. You and the children will both be glad you did.
Ruth Kantor Lopez holds degrees in environmental studies and horticulture, and is the owner of Gardens For Growing People, a catalog of resources for garden based education. Please call 415-663-9433 for a free catalog.
Caterpillars to Butterflies Game
Watch children develop a sense of empathy with the natural environment as they "become" the butterflies they observe with this garden game adapted from the Seattle Tilth Children's Garden.
- 10 cups filled with watered-down juice
- Straws (one per child)
- 10 freshly picked edible flowers
What to Do:
1. Have the children form a line with an adult leader at the head. The leader is the head of the caterpillar and the children are the caterpillar's body and legs.
2. Wind the "caterpillar" through the garden as the leader takes pieces of edible leaves and flowers, eats one, and passes them down the line so all children have a chance to take a nibble. (Leader should be knowledgeable about edible flowers.)
3. Talk about how caterpillars form cocoons and change into butterflies. Encourage the children to curl up in the grass and pretend to be asleep as they go through imaginary metamorphosis. While the children are sleeping set out cups of watered down juice in different places in the garden. Float an edible flower in each cup.
4. Tell the children they can now emerge as butterflies, and pass out a straw to each child. Tell them that the straws are their proboscis (the long, tubular feeding apparatus of butterflies), and send them out into the garden to sip nectar from the "special flowers" they find.