Butterflies: Magical garden creatures

It is pure magic to watch a group of delicate butterflies fluttering around the garden. At first glance they seem to move entirely at random. But watch quietly for a few minutes and you will see they have an unmistakable sense of direction as they navigate from flower to flower in search of nectar.
And, for me, 2018 has been a very special year for butterflies. In addition to many different kinds making delightful cameo appearances in my garden, there were also three very special butterfly “happenings” which I truly cherish. 
Clouds of blue
One beautiful morning, back in early May, I was strolling across the open area on Hogback Mountain near our house where the wild blueberries grow, soaking up the sights and smells of spring. 
Then suddenly I saw clouds of miniature blue butterflies. I was completely mesmerized as I watched these tiny creatures flitting back and forth, presumably gathering food and maybe seeking a mate. 
I came home and indeed I found these same blue butterflies, each measuring barely an inch long, were also greeting the spring in my garden.
I have seen these butterflies in previous years, but usually just two or three. After a little checking I concluded they were most likely Spring Azure Butterflies (Celastrina ladon).
But, whatever their name, I cannot forget the sight of those dancing blue clouds. 
A butterfly ballet 
A few weeks later it was time for the Tiger Swallowtails (Papilo glaucus) to arrive. These are large yellow butterflies with easily recognized black stripes that are indeed reminiscent of a tiger’s stripes. 
For many years now the Tiger Swallowtails have predictably arrived in large numbers in early June. They would stay about four weeks to feast on the various lilacs that grow in my garden — first the common lilacs, then the Korean Lilacs and finally the Late Lilacs. In past years once the lilacs were finished flowering the butterflies quickly disappeared. 
But 2018 was special. The Tiger Swallowtails arrived on cue to enjoy the lilacs, but then they stayed with us all summer long. 
It is a wonderful sight to see them flying around the summer garden, and then stopping at flowers like Echinacea, Helenium, Heliopsis and Shasta Daisies to enjoy the nectar. 
And many times I would watch a pair of butterflies spiral higher and higher, dancing together in a graceful duet. Was this a mating dance? 
Tiger Swallowtails will only lay their eggs on the leaves of a select number of trees, including black cherry, ash and birch. And fortuitously many of these trees grow in the surrounding forest, thus making our garden a place where they can indeed, complete their life cycle. 
Those intrepid travelers
The iconic American Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), with their orange wings, black veining and a distinctive black and white checkered pattern around the margins, are instantly recognizable by gardeners and non-gardeners alike.
A decade ago every year in late summer we would see dozens of Monarch butterflies in our garden. Seeking the nectar, adult butterflies flocked to the Shasta Daisies, Blazing Star, Echinacea, Rudbeckia, Asters, and — always a huge favorite among all the butterflies — the ornamental Oregano. They would also spend time in the meadow across the road among the wild Asters and Goldenrod.
Also, since the Monarch caterpillars can onlyeat plants in the milkweed genus (Asclepias), when it comes time to lay their eggs the adults always seek out the milkweed plants. Fortunately that same meadow has a good supply of milkweed. 
But in the past decade we have all witnessed an enormous decline in the number of Monarchs; recently in any one season I probably only saw two or three of these beautiful butterflies in our garden, typically arriving around the middle of August. In fact studies show that, all across the country, the number of Monarchs has declined precipitously — with an estimated loss of about 90 percent of the overall Monarch population over the last 10 years. 
But this year I am delighted to report that we have seen quite an increase in the number of Monarchs in our garden. And, what is especially interesting, while they first arrived in mid-June, we are still watching the Monarchs in August.
To understand what has been happening in the world of the Monarch butterflies it helps to know a little about their amazing life cycle. 
There are actually several populations of American Monarchs, with the two major populations, the Eastern Monarchs and the Western Monarchs, both famous for their distributed breeding patterns and for their legendary long distance migrations. In the summertime Eastern Monarchs can be found all the way from Mexico to southern Canada and from the Rocky Mountains to the Eastern seaboard. And, all across this huge land area, as many as four generations of butterflies are born in a single season.
Then, starting in September and October, all Eastern Monarchs, (with the exception of a few that use the Atlantic seaboard) undertake a single prodigious migration to reach their over-wintering destination, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, in Southern Mexico.
During this migration, these tiny creatures fly the most astonishing distances. Those that start out in Vermont will travel almost 3,000 miles to reach their winter destination in Mexico, while the population that begins its journey in the Canadian Maritime Provinces will fly nearly 5,000 miles.
The following March those same butterflies set out on a northbound trip. However no individual butterfly flies all the way north. At successive stops along the way the females seek out milkweed plants where they lay their eggs. Then the resulting caterpillars produce the next generation of butterflies that continues its journey northwards. The generation reaching Vermont will be either the great-grandchildren or even the great-great-grandchildren of the butterflies that left us last fall and overwintered in Mexico.
Thus, in order to complete this incredible life cycle, Monarchs absolutely require milkweed at each breeding area on their journey north. 
However, due to large-scale farming practices in the Midwest, milkweed is inadvertently being eradicated. Many farmers spray their fields with the herbicide Round-up in the springtime and then plant “Round-up ready” seed. But all too often the herbicide spray goes beyond the fields onto the surrounding rough ground, killing plants like milkweed (which farmers consider a weedy nuisance plant that is toxic to livestock) growing there. 
The good news is that, across the country, milkweeds are actually starting to make a come-back. In 2016, to help the beleaguered butterflies, the USDA started offering incentives for farmers and ranchers to plant milkweed and other pollinator friendly plants. And since milkweeds can also be grown in gardens, many gardeners and schools have also been experimenting with planting them. 
And there is also a fascinating initiative underway, both in Quebec and in the Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, to grow milkweed commercially and harvest the floss (downy material that surrounds the milkweed seeds) to use as an insulating material. Imagine your next winter jacket might also be helping the Monarch butterflies.
Welcoming butterflies to your garden
Some of the best garden plants to attract butterflies are those in the huge daisy family (Compositae) including Echinacea, Heliopsis, Shasta Daisies, and Black Eyed Susans, all of which have easily available nectar. 
And then, for those butterfly species you do see, you want to encourage them to stay around and lay eggs for the next generation. Do a little research to find out which plants their caterpillars need. Thus for the Monarchs you will need to plant some kind of milkweed, including the cheery orange species, (Asclepias tuberosa) appropriately called Butterfly Weed.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.com.

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