In early spring, mourning cloaks entered the gardens of Charlotte Rhoades Park in Southwest Harbor. In search for tree sap, these large, dark butterflies, their wings edged with yellow and vibrant blue spots, wandered the dead plants and budding trees. A hibernating butterfly, it is one of the first to grace Maine gardens each year.
In May, pale orange painted ladies and swift red admirals joined the mourning cloak, drawing sweet nectar from early blooms.
“There are beds that have been established with very colorful annuals and perennials,” said master gardener Ann Judd, park coordinator. “But the whole park is designed with plants that attract one butterfly or another.”
Soon enough, the paler cloudless sulphurs and cabbage whites will float in, followed by monarchs arriving from Mexico. Each plant in the park was selected to attract these whimsical insects, from the blueberries on the bank to the shrubs and trees lining the walkways.
Aside from being a soothing, serene creature to have in the garden, butterflies are quite helpful in pollinating plants. In their search for nectar, they spread pollen from one flower to another, ensuring seed for new generations of plants. They also recycle nutrients and are prey for many species of birds, spiders and small mammals, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension publication “Landscaping for Butterflies in Maine,” available online at umaine.edu/publications.
Maine is home to more than 100 species of butterflies, all of which have four wings covered with small scales. The butterfly families seen in Maine are the swallowtails, whites and sulphurs, gossamer-wings, brush-footed butterflies, monarchs, and artics and satyrs.
These insects develop by metamorphosis, characterized by four growth stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and adult — a transformation many Maine children watch with wonder in elementary school science class.
The Rhoades Butterfly Garden was established in 1998 to promote gardening education in the community. Each year since, volunteers have worked with garden visitors of all ages to learn more about butterfly habitats, life cycle and behavior.
“We show people how monarch butterflies are tagged for migration,” Judd said. “I was just showing someone yesterday a butterfly laying an egg on a vegetable, because if you don’t know what it looks like, you don’t know how to see it.”
At the park, gardeners cater to all of these life stages, planting trees, shrubs and flowers that appeal to not only the adult butterfly but the caterpillar, as well.
What to put in your butterfly garden
Each butterfly species has a preference for a particular habitat — meadow, woods, woodland edges or marshes — which is why variation is key when creating a butterfly garden.
“One thing that is really important is having things that are blooming from the very earliest part of spring with nectar to the latest part of fall,” Judd said.
The entire Charlotte Rhoades Park is filled with plants meant to attract different butterflies. In early spring, lupines, flowering onions and catmint are the first plants to wake. And when the weather warms, visitors can also enjoy coreopsis, lavender, beebalm, aster, joe-pye weed, purple coneflower, globe thistle, milkweed and, of course, butterfly bush.
Most gardeners, whether they know it, already grow plants that attract butterflies. Certain species are attracted to flowerbed favorites such as zinnia, cosmos, verbena, salvia and rhododendron, Judd said. And butterfly larvae — caterpillars — are even attracted to weeds such as thistles.
She warns that a lot of hybrid plant varieties are sterile and don’t produce nectar. The best thing to do is plant a wide variety of colorful, native flowers that will thrive in your garden.
Adult butterflies typically prefer to fill their stomachs with nectar and sap, though they’ll occasionally find nutrients from other sources.
“They get nutrients from mud puddles that might have certain things in them,” Judd said. “It’s always good to have a water source of some kind in the butterfly garden.”
Judd also plants butterfly-friendly vegetables, herbs, shrubs and trees such as common lilac, summersweet, dogwood, carrots, cauliflower, blueberries and birch, ash, oak and poplar trees. Some of these plants are food sources for caterpillars and therefore encourage butterflies to lay eggs in the garden.
In general, it’s tough to go wrong. But if you’re looking for specific plants to add to your garden, several resources online will pair plants with specific butterflies. According to the UMaine Cooperative Extension, eastern tiger swallowtails enjoy wild cherries and lilac bushes; eastern black swallowtails seek Queen Anne’s lace, milkweed and plox; spring azure enjoy blackberries, dandelions, violets and wintercress; great spangled fritillary are attracted to joe-pye weed, black-eyed Susan and purple coneflower; monarchs prefer milkweed, aster, thistle, ironweed, gayfeather, cosmos and goldenrod; and mourning cloaks seek tree sap from oaks.
Butterfly gardens near you
While the Charlotte Rhoades Butterfly Garden is a haven for the region’s butterfly gardens, it is by no means the only butterfly garden in Maine. Many local gardens, such as the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, have flowerbeds specifically designed to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
Just last summer, the historic Brewster Inn in Dexter added a butterfly garden to its landscaping plan. The master gardeners in charge of the project got creative when they decided to construct a flower bed — just over 15 feet wide — to be shaped as a butterfly. They then planted colorful annuals and perennials in a symmetrical pattern so when they bloom, it mimics real butterfly wings.
“It’s an amazing work of art, my butterfly garden,” said the inn’s owner, Mark Stephens. “Seven of my nine rooms look out onto it, this garden shaped like a giant butterfly.”
“It was kind of a slope in the backyard, and we just took advantage of it,” said Darlene Bagley, who worked on the garden and supplied the plants from her Snap of the Dragon Greenhouse in Corinna. “Mrs. Brewster used to have an herb garden there, but it was all overgrown. Bushes and weeds had taken over. We thought, sitting on the porch, people would like something to look at.”
This summer, Bagley is working with young girls in Girl Scout Brownies and Daisies to create a similar butterfly-shaped flower bed with recycled lumber in Corinna’s Caw-Cheery Children’s Community Garden, which Bagley named after Jeanne Carcieri, owner of the property.
Another butterfly garden was created several years ago at Pemaquid Beach Park in Bristol by master gardeners who are members of the Pemaquid Watershed Association. And yet another butterfly garden can be found at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth. So if you don’t have the space, time or means to build your own, there are plenty of places to go and enjoy these beautiful insects.
At the end of July, the Charlotte Rhoades Park and Butterfly Garden will hold its annual fundraising event. Each person who enters the garden will receive a box to be handled with care. Later, everyone gathers and opens their boxes at the same time, releasing a colorful swarm of butterflies into the air.
For lists of plants to grow in Maine butterfly gardens and for more information, visit umaine.edu/publications/7151e.