Any day now, we should be seeing butterflies at Crossroads and in most wooded areas of Wisconsin. Butterflies? This early? On warm sunny days….the kind of days when the maple sap is rising… remarkable, rather large butterflies called Mourning Cloaks are out and about. They are one of the most welcome signs of spring.
I had been taught that back in Victorian times, widows and other women who were grieving, wore a special wrap–a mourning cloak, usually a drab color like black or brown with, perhaps, some light blue or yellow ruffles on the edges. Because they also are the color of dark chocolate (or in some light, almost maroon) , and they have blue spots and cream-colored wing margins, Mourning Cloaks Butterflies were named for this garment of sadness. Some linguists think the name goes back even farther than the Victorian times because in several European languages, the name of this butterfly relates to mourning.
The dark color of the butterflies has a function. Mourning Cloaks endured the winter as adult butterflies, hibernating under the bark of trees or here in Door County, in cracks of our exposed rocks. When they experience even a hint of springtime warmth, Mourning Cloaks emerge and find a sunny spot where they bask–wings extended– in the sunshine. The dark wings absorb enough heat that the butterflies become warm enough to fly.
But, as perhaps you have noticed, flowers are still rather scarce. No problem for Mourning Cloaks. They sip the sap from trees—the sweet sap of the maples, the ooze from oaks, or sometime they drink juices from rotting fruit. These four inch butterflies will flit and float through the woods throughout spring and into mid-summer. Summer is their breeding season.
The female butterfly will lay a mass of up to 200 eggs on a willow branch, if she can find one. If she can’t find willow, she will lay her eggs on elm, birch, or aspen trees. That’s it. Mourning Cloak caterpillars can live only on these four kinds of trees. But even that is unusual. Most butterflies have only one or two host plants on which they can lay eggs. If their host plant is common, the butterfly is probably pretty common too. But if a butterfly species can lay eggs only on one specific plant, and if that one specific plant is not around, there simply won’t be future generations of that species of butterfly in a given area.
And that may be the reason that some buttefly gardens don’t seem to attract any more butterflies than an ordinary lawns. Butterfly lovers work very hard to plant and tend colorful, nectar-rich flowers. But if the specific host plants required by breeding butterflies are not near the garden, butterflies simply won’t hang around. And to make matters complicated, almost every species of butterfly requires a different host plant.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails need to lay eggs on willows or cherries. Black swallowtails select dill and Queen Anne’s lace. Painted Ladies like hollyhocks, sunflowers, and thistle. And as vegetable gardeners will tell you, cabbages attract egg-laying Cabbage White Butterflies. Each species of caterpillar must eat of its host plant in order to mature.
If you would like to learn how and what to plant to attract butterflies to your property, you will want to attend the Master Gardener Lecture “ Butterfly Gardens”. Local butterfly expert Chriss Daubner will show exquisite slides of her prairie planting and the butterflies which visit it to breed and feed. The program will be offered on Tuesday, April 8 at 7:00. It is free and open to the public.
On the following day, Wednesday, April 9 at 2:00, the video “Doug Tallamy Live,” will feature the author of the book “Bringing Nature Home.” In this recorded presentation, Tallamy will explain why butterflies are so finicky about where they lay their eggs, and why it matters. Those who want to turn their property into butterfly habitat and by extension, improve the habitat for all wildlife, should see this lecture, which we will repeat throughout the run-up to the planting season.