Oklahoma Butterflies


butterfliesLast fall, I watched the skies as tens of thousands of monarch butterflies wafted across Oklahoma landscape on their annual journey to the tropics of Mexico. I’ve always been amazed that these frail-looking insects with paper-thin wings could manage such a grueling journey of thousands of miles. More recently, however, I discovered that this butterfly migration is not as it seems.

New research shows that each spring as monarch travel north from Mexico, the adults lay their eggs and die. The eggs hatch and pupate into new adults, which continue north in to Canada. By fall, it is actually fifth- or sixth-generation adult monarchs that complete the cycle back to Mexico.

Monarchs are on species of about 180 butterflies and skippers that have been counted in Oklahoma. Interest in attracting and watching butterflies has grown immensely over the past 10 years. In fact many people think butterfly-watching could become as popular as bird watching.
Besides serving as pollinators for native and cultivated plants, butterflies are a joy to watch and are relatively easy to attract by providing valuable nectar-producing flowers. Butterflies are also excellent indicators of local environmental health. Healthy ecosystems generally have large numbers of butterflies and other insects, while ecosystems that have been degraded due to insecticides, herbicides or nearby developments do not have many species.

Butterflies undergo four distinct life-cycles stages, including egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult. Soon after eggs hatch, the emerging larval caterpillars begin voraciously eating specifically selected plants. Once they have grown large enough, they enter the pupa stage, where caterpillar’s worm-like appearance seems to magically transform from a strange-looking chrysalis into a winged adult.

After stretching and drying their wings, the new adult butterflies can be attracted to red, orange, pink and purple flowers arranged in clusters in sunny areas of your yard. Butterflies also prefer blossoms with large petals that provide a stable feeding platform. The best butterfly gardens combine annual and perennial flowers blooming at various intervals to provide a continuous nectar supply.

Many native plants serve not only as nectar sources for adult butterflies, but also as host species for their earlier life stages. A single native plant bed, carefully designed and planted with larval host plants and nectar flowers, can be a center attraction for both butterflies and butterfly watchers. Butterfly gardens can be as simple as a few nectar plants. Just remember that creating butterfly habitat requires more than one season of planting, so be prepared to add additional plant species as time goes on.

The following plants offer the best chance for attracting a wide variety of Oklahoma Butterflies.

Nectar Plants
Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)
Glossy abelia (Abelia grandiflora)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)*
False indigo (Amorpha fruticosa)*
Lanatana (Lantana spp.)
Engelmann daisy (Engelmannia pinnatifida)*
Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)*
Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum)
Blazing star (Liatris phycnostachyan)*
Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)
Pentas (Pentas lanceolata)
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)*
Showy sedum (Sedum spectabile)
Snowy bergamot (Monarda didyma)
Summer phlox (Phlox paniculata)*
Tuber verbena (Verbena rigida)

* Denotes an Oklahoma native plant species

Long before my butterfly research, I used to assist my mother in picking the yellow “dillworms” off the dill weed that she used for canning. Needless to say, mom and I both know better now – those worms turned out to be the larval caterpillars of the beautiful black swallowtail butterfly, Oklahoma's official state butterfly. Unknowingly, Mom was providing the swallowtails’ favorite larval food source, which gave them the energy they needed to change into adults. By providing larval food plants in your garden, you can easily observe the caterpillars and see for yourself the lifecycles of various butterfly species.

Larval host plants and butterflies attracted to them

Trumpet Honeysuckle*……….. Spring azure
Mildweed*………….Monarch, queen
Indian paintbrush …..Bucheye, fulvia checker spot
Sweet clover ………Common, alfalfa and orange sulphers, dogface butterfly; Reakirt’s and Eastern tailed blues; fairy yellow; gray hairstreak; spring azure
Lantana/Thistle#……Painted lady, American painted lady
Parsley/Dill/Carrot…..Eastern black swallowtail
Sweet Alyssum….Checkered and cabbage whites Sunflower (annual)# ……gorgone and silvery crescentspots, painted lady, American painted lady
Lamb’s Quarters*….Painted lady, common and scalloped sootywings, Western pygmy blue
Violet*……Variegated and great-spangled fritillaries
American Elm*…….Question mark, mourning cloak, painted lady, comma
Hackberry/Sugarberry*….Snout and hackberry, tawny emperor, mourning cloak, question mark
American Plum*….Coral and striped hairstreaks, spring azure, tiger swallowtail
Passionflower*….Gilf and varigated fritillaries
Rose of Sharon…Gray hairstreak
Hollies #..Henry’s elfin
Apple….Viceroy, red spotted purple, gray hairstreak, spring zure

*Denotes an Oklahoma native plant species

# some varieties are Oklahoma Natives

Most butterflies prefer open, sunny spaces – a full-sun wildflower garden is ideal – and they often perch on flat stones to raise their boy temperature by basking. A wind-sheltered garden with a fence or windbreak of trees and large shrubs also helps attract winged visitors. However, some caterpillars may require food plants in shaded areas.

Water is essential. Most butterflies obtain the moisture they need from the flowers they visit, but many species also enjoy a damp area from which to drink. Although butterflies are unable to drink from open water. You can easily provide a small puddle or “seep” for their use. Place wet sand in a shallow dish and fill it with rocks or gravel to serve as a butterfly oasis.

If your garden is to be a meadow of flowers, refrain from mowing so that grasses and wildflowers native to your area can grow. Over time, plant seeds of other butterfly-attracting plants at these natural food patches. Alternate mowing your meadow is spring and fall so that the meadow is never completely mowed at one time; this will protect he fragile pupae. Most important of all, do not use insecticides or herbicides. And remember to not destroy all those “dillworms” and other caterpillars – they may surprise you by turning into something unexpectedly beautiful.

For more information on creating a butterfly garden, see the Landscaping for Wildlife: A Guide to the Southern Great Plains and Butterflies of Oklahoma, Kansas and North Texas found in the Outdoor store.