|Fields of Dreams
Experience the joys of butterfly gardening
Written by Sue Goldberg
Photography by Ryan Kurtz
If you plant it, they will come. Butterflies, those quick-change artists that morph from slinky, leaf-devouring
caterpillars to fluttering, nectar-sipping beauties, are seeking habitats to call their own. If your landscape
includes just the right mix of nectar-producing food plants and suitable-for-egg-laying host plants, you’ve got a
More than 30 species have found their sanctuary in Wayne Richards’ backyard butterfly garden, where he and
his wife, Christina, not only attract them but raise them. They bring the butterfly eggs indoors, where they hand-
raise the insects, then release them outside as they reach butterfly stage. In the eight years that the Elsmere,
Ky., couple have cultivated their garden into a butterfly haven, they have gone from raising 100 butterflies their
first year to more than 1,000 in 2007.
|Wayne’s dedication grew from a childhood and family fascination with butterflies and nature. In fact, he and his
sister, Judy Burris, recently co-authored the award-winning book, The Life Cycles of Butterflies. Between Burris’
degree in biology (with a minor in entomology) and the knowledge gathered from years of butterfly gardening,
the project became a natural outlet for their accumulated expertise.
Their discoveries continue to shape clients’ landscapes (they now lend design skills to area zoos, conservatories
and private residences), as well as their own backyards. Judy maintains a wildflower garden, while Wayne
created a touring garden, which won a distinguished Amateur Gardener Recognition Award in 2006 from The
Cincinnati Horticultural Society.
“We now have a success rate of about 95 percent of everything we collect surviving to adulthood,” Wayne says.
“They say in nature, it’s less than 1 percent. And if you actually see everything that goes after them, I’m
surprised that it’s 1 percent, honestly.”
|Butterflies by Design
In order to maintain this thriving habitat, Wayne keeps his garden in well-designed, oval-shaped, raised beds and
terraced landscaping along the back of his home’s quarter-acre lot.
“My neighbors thought I was insane, because after the third tractor trailer backed in dropping off bricks, they
thought I was building another house or a bomb shelter,” Wayne laughs. “If I did a bed, [though,] I could get to
every angle of it. We could do our photography; we could collect our eggs.”
Wayne makes sure each bed has a mix of host plants for laying eggs and nectar plants for feeding. “We’ll have the
same host plant in three or four locations sometimes,” he explains. “It’s not necessarily just in one place. In case a
butterfly doesn’t find it in one, it’ll find it in another.”
Wayne and Christina also heavily prune their trees and shrubs. Dwarfed trees make it much easier to spot and
collect eggs. It also allows them to accommodate more types of trees. At least 15 varieties grow in their garden,
hosts to one or more particular species of butterfly. The pawpaw tree, for example, was planted to attract one of
their favorites: the Zebra Swallowtail. “It’s the only thing it can lay eggs on,” Wayne says. “Nothing else. So without
pawpaws, you don’t have Zebras.”
|Variety is the spice of life
Sweet bay magnolia, dogwood, redbud, hackberry and wild cherry trees are also featured in the Richards’ butterfly
“This one is my new one this year,” Wayne says pointing to a young wafer-ash. “It’s for the Giants. I already have
the prickly ash near the fence, which worked really well, but I’ve been told the wafer-ash works.” Also called the hop
tree, the wafer-ash tree is used as a host plant by Giant Swallowtails and, sometimes, Tiger Swallowtails.
The Pipevine butterfly is another favorite. And its host plant? Well, the pipevine, of course. “We have to tell people
that technically it’s a toxic plant if eaten in high doses,” Wayne cautions. “It’s also aggressive, which means once it
takes hold, it likes to spread, so in a small area, that’s usually not a feasible plant to have.” Trailing across their
backyard fence, ‘Dutchman’s-pipe’ offers plenty of leaves for very hungry caterpillars. A small-leaf pipevine trails
along the fence, opposite, making great use of available space.
The Richards also plant hops, which grow roughly about 45 feet in length during the summer, dying back during
the cold season. Wayne fashioned a pyramid-shaped form for the vines to grow through, around and up, which
creates a thick, lush bed of leaves for Question Marks, Commas and Snouts (yes, those are real butterfly names)
to lay their eggs.
A woodland shrub, the aromatic spicebush, grows well here and attracts the Spicebush Swallowtail. In fact, the
shrub can grow almost anywhere and can be cut down or heavily pruned at the end of the season to suit smaller
gardens. Other shrubs, viburnum, pussy willow and arctic blue willow, offer interesting textures to the garden and
attract butterflies looking for a place to lay eggs.
Wayne grows several varieties of milkweed to entice Monarchs, as well as wild flowers such as violets to beckon the
Great Spangled Fritillaries.
Nectar-rich plants such as Mexican sunflowers, daylilies, coneflowers, passionflowers, lantana (the berries and
leaves are poisonous), bee balm, lavender, dandelions and daisies will provide energy for butterflies, but other food
sources may be appreciated as well, as long as you’re not the squeamish sort.
“Question Marks, Commas, Red-Spotted Purples—they will eat some [nectar], but they prefer nasty, rotten fruit,”
Wayne says. You may spot butterflies on carrion or animal waste, too.
In fact, the Richards have posted an image on their Web site, www.butterflynature.com, which shows several
butterflies flocking to a bowl of fruit that’s seen better days.
“You can use bananas that are way too old to eat, the mushier the better,” Wayne suggests. “Nasty apples. Apples
that have gone rotten to the core. Open the microwave for a few seconds and you can speed that process along.”
“Watermelon,” Christina adds. “They love watermelon.”
If arranging rotten fruit for a backyard feast isn’t your idea of fun, try this alternate strategy from the Richards: Plant
fruit-bearing trees, such as the persimmon. The yield, in this case, is a mushy fruit for which butterflies will go
Beginners are in luck
Wayne insists that it isn’t difficult to achieve the kind of butterfly success that he and his wife enjoy. One look at their
lush garden in its summer-fullness, however, may be enough to make a novice gardener hesitate. Starting small,
though, is the way to go. Try limiting a first attempt to one or two beds, each roughly 10-by-10 feet, and plant the
sure-fire varieties that Wayne suggests.
“If you have fennel, I guarantee at the end of the year, you will have Black Swallowtails laying eggs on it,” he
contends. “Even if you put it in the window box of your house, they will come and find it. Fennel has a very strong
odor, and they can’t resist it for laying eggs. It’s pretty, and it tastes like licorice. You can use it in your own cooking.”
|Wayne suggests adding coneflowers, bee balm and tall verbena for nectar and beauty. “Verbena is the No. 1
attractant for butterflies in our area for about every species,” he says. Because it can grow with anything, doesn’t
get aggressive and is a good self-seeder, he finds it to be a perfect companion for other garden plants. Butterfly
bush and lantana are tempting, too. Since the berries and leaves of the lantana are toxic, the Richards deadhead
the flowers to prevent the fruit from setting, while at the same time encouraging more blooms.
For a simple, effective use of space, plant a bed with a variety of color and forms, using such tried-and-true plants
as coneflower, butterfly bush, Mexican sunflower and tall verbena. Edge the bed with rue or feathery fennel. Your
goal is to achieve that optimum mix of host and nectar plants, but with a little planning the space can be visually
appealing as well. Place larger growing blooms toward the back, then layer in other varieties. Even a simple mix of
lantana and fennel in container gardens will look beautiful and attract butterflies for both egg laying and feeding
|Creating Butterfly Corridors
If you’re stuck in the middle of a concrete jungle or an area that’s devoid of blooms, get your neighbors in on the
act. With their help, you can create a corridor of nectar-rich flowers and abundant host plants that keep butterflies
moving from one hospitality center to the next. A few of Wayne’s neighbors have added butterfly gardens, so a
friendly corridor extends throughout his Elsmere neighborhood.
Where to get the plants you need
It’s getting easier to find just the right plants for butterfly gardens today. When Wayne and Christina first started
playing hosts for butterflies, some of the specialty plants were hard to find. Even just a season ago, Wayne needed
to call a grower in Alabama to order his new wafer-ash tree.
“So much of my stuff I’ve had to order out of other places because nurseries around here never carried them,”
Wayne recalls. “Now they’re getting more and more adapted to what butterfly lovers need. And they’re getting more
and more species of what I like in.”
Wayne works with and recommends local nurseries that do not use pesticides or systemics in the soil—butterflies
are extremely susceptible to such things.
“[Growers are] finding out that people are going green. People don’t want the poisons,” Wayne says. “The problem
is people used to have a mindset when they went to the nursery that they want the one plant that’s green and
perfect—all of the leaves, none of them eaten. But if you don’t spray, you’re going to have a plant where leaves are
eaten, might even have a caterpillar on it. We go to nurseries, and we say, ‘There are eggs on that plant. Buy it!’”
|Giving Butterflies a Helping Hand
Wayne has called his journey ‘addictive.’ He refers to what is now family legend—a story about his grandmother
who would stay up all night with a net watching her aquarium, ready to divide newly born guppies from the adult fish
so that the babies did not become, well, fish food.
“The Guppy Syndrome,” Wayne says with a laugh. “That’s what we called it.” He fears he may have the same
compulsion when it comes to saving butterflies.
But, experts relate, some species of butterflies, whose numbers have been diminishing in the wild, need those
special ‘addicted’ folks if shrinking populations are ever to come back to healthy, sustainable levels. Wayne and his
family are ready to share their hard-earned expertise, spreading the word about butterflies and their importance as
part of the food chain and as pollinators. They also offer lectures and workshops, throughout the region and
“Every year it’s a new experience,” Wayne relates. “It’s nice because I deal with a lot of people through butterfly
clubs, farmers and raisers. Everybody’s so willing to share their knowledge of what they’ve learned, of what
happened to them. And you learn a lot from other people…. We don’t want to be the only ones who have what we
know. We want everybody to have what we know. [People ask,] ‘Doesn’t that make you less valuable?’ No! It makes
everybody else more valuable.”
|Photos (top to bottom):
Red Admiral on coneflower
Great Spangled Fritillary on milkweed
Question Mark caterpillar on hop leaf
Zebra Swallowtail laying eggs on pawpaw tree