WASHINGTON - About 670 species of butterflies live in the United States and Canada, visiting hundreds of thousands of flowers, drinking nectar and pollinating plants in their short lives.
They bring excitement to gardens, floating and dipping their way through the plants. The myths about them are positive, such as the Native American legend that they are messengers of the Great Spirit and that wishes whispered to them will come true.
To attract these messengers, put your garden in a sunny area. Install host plants, which caterpillars eat and butterflies lay their eggs on. Plant nectar-producing flowers that attract butterflies in your area. Single flowers, which have just one row of petals, are more accessible to butterflies than doubles. Include shallow puddles for drinking and small flat rocks so they can bask in the sun. Don't use pesticides in or near a butterfly garden.
Butterflies are harmless, and only one of their larvae - caterpillars - can be considered pests. Almost all butterflies' feeding is harmless to plants. One exception is the cabbage butterflies, which lay eggs on young cabbage plants. Larvae feed on the heads as they form.
There are many flowers from which butterflies drink nectar, and there are several host plants on which butterflies hatch, feed and then pupate from eggs to caterpillars to adulthood.
These nectar-producing flowers will keep butterflies occupied all summer:
• Black-eyed Susan has golden yellow blooms that feed butterflies throughout the summer.
• Butterfly weed or milkweed (Aesclepias) belongs in a natural, moist setting.
• Cosmos is an annual that seeds itself, returning year after year.
• Goldenrod (Solidago) has showy golden flowers.
• Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium) likes moist sites and has a tall (five- to six-foot) course-textured habit. It flowers in August and September.
• Lantana grows in hot, sunny locations. It's a free-flowering, drought-tolerant annual, but worth it for an entire summer of flowers.
• Lavender (Lavandula) stays blue-green in winter and offers flowers for sachets and nectar for butterflies.
• Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) will cure the common cold, according to medicinal herb information.
• Sage (Salvia) offers low blue to purple spiked flowers for the front of the perennial border in summer.
• Spearmint (Mentha spicata) has leaves for tea and flowers for nectar - a perfect match.
• Verbena is one of the most butterfly-attracting plants I have seen. Its purple rounded clusters of flowers last all summer, until first frost.
Without host plants to help butterflies complete their life cycle, they would face extinction. Some of them need one specific host. For example, the monarch butterfly will hatch and grow on only milkweed, which has been controlled as an invasive weed for many years. We must maintain the habitat of this plant to encourage the incredible long-lived monarch.
The winter generation of the monarch lives for up to six months. They migrate 1,000 to 2,000 miles to the mountains of Mexico and rest on the branches of fir trees, and then fly back in spring, mating along the way. The next generation will often complete the journey home. Think about that the next time you spot their orange wings, edged with black and white dots, decorating your garden. If you see them late in the season, they're probably about to go on vacation to Mexico.
Other plants that attract certain species of butterflies:
• Daisy and aster attract the painted lady and pearly crescentspot.
• Oak will host the gray hairstreak.
• Plum and wild cherry host the coral hairstreak.
• Spicebush or sassafras will provide a home to the spicebush swallowtail.
• The viceroy uses willow, apple and cherry.
• Fennel, dill, parsley and rue are preferred for the eastern black swallowtail.
• Verbena and snapdragon will host the buckeye butterfly.
• Willow, ash and cherries offer habitats to the tiger swallowtail.
• Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md., and author of "Anyone Can Landscape"(Ball 2001). Contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.