The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Lots of New Butterfly Gardens
by Ro Wauer

On a recent trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, I was impressed once again by the abundance of butterfly gardens being installed. Five years ago, only Santa Ana and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuges and Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary had butterfly gardens. Now there are marvelous butterfly gardens at Edinburg, the new World Birding Site at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Hugh Ramsey Nature Park at Harlingen, and the North American Butterfly Association's 100-acre International Butterfly Park along the Military Highway just east of Bentsen. All of these are designed to attract butterflies and to allow butterfly enthusiasts to wander about to watch and photograph those flying gems. The hobby of butterflying has truly come of age.

There are a number of reasons for this new wave of nature appreciation. Besides an increased interest in the outdoors, perhaps a way to reduce the stress of everyday life, is the recent appearance of several really good butterfly field guides. All of the new guides show butterflies in their nature state, that is photographs as they occur in the field, not photographs of specimens that are often difficult to utilize. My favorite butterfly field guide, one that has been available for about two years now, is the "Butterflies of North America," a Kaufman Focus Guide by Jim Brock and Kenn Kaufman. A really superb book! And my "Butterflies of the Lower Rio Grande Valley" includes all 300 species that have been recorded in the valley.

Another factor that has enhanced butterfly watching in recent years is the appearance of good close-focusing binoculars. The typical birding binoculars that do not focus closer than 10 to 15 feet just don't work for seeing detailed features of little butterflies. But close-focusing binoculars, now available from most of the top quality binocular manufactures, allow one to focus on a subject from as close as four feet. It makes a world of difference.

All of this has created a huge cadre of butterfly-watchers, folks who travel about visiting key areas in search for butterflies they have not previously seen. And to accommodate this new hoard of eco-tourists, butterfly gardens are springing up all across the state and elsewhere, especially in the southern half of the United States. As might be expected, new books, brochures, and magazine articles on butterfly plants are now in vogue as well. For instance, the North American Butterfly Association has produced a number of brochures on local butterfly plants. Derek Muschalek of Yorktown and I wrote one of those for the "Central Gulf Coast Area of Texas," available via the Internet at www.naba.org. It includes various sections, including top nectar flowers, those that don't work in this region, top caterpillar food plants, and common butterflies for your garden and yard.

The top 10 butterfly nectar flowers included, in order of their value in attracting butterflies, include crucita or Euptorium odoratum, cowpen daisy, tropical sage, mealy sage, frog-fruit, Texas palafoxia, palmleaf (Gregg's) eupatorium, Mexican heather, and weeping lantana. Milkweeds are also a necessity, especially in spring and fall when monarchs are passing through our area. Additional very good butterfly nectar flowers include weeping lantana, pentas, sky-flower or Duranta, pink eupatorium, Texas kidneywood, prickly sida, and zinnas.

Of course, any butterfly garden must also include a variety of caterpillar food plants, those plants that are used by butterflies for egg-laying. Some of the top plant species (with some duplication) include blue passionvine, dill, Mexican milkweed, common sunflower, candlesticks (Cassia alata), canna lily, crucita, and cowpen daisy.

For those readers preparing their gardens, you can also appreciate butterflies with very little extra effort by planting some of the above butterfly plants. Enjoy!


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