This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 13, 2016, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
We’ve lived in our home in East Bernard for a little over forty years, and I’ve been working in my backyard studio for half of those, watching the animal, plant, and insect life from my large studio window,-- and this is my first year to notice a delightful influx of butterflies invading our backyard.
We haven’t intentionally tried to attract butterflies, but my wife’s growing enthusiasm for gardening has led to a kaleidoscopic variety of backyard plants, especially flowering plants. There are numerous flowering plants, chosen for their beauty, that seem particularly attractive to butterflies. The flowers were an intended attempt to add beauty to our lawn; the butterflies are a bonus at no cost, -- sort of like God’s lagniappe to us.
Being a sensitive and sentimental person, I am watching the flight-paths of the butterflies and remembering my childhood in Dime Box. What a blessing to have lived on five acres in a picturesque little rural town, and with four of those five acres heavily wooded. Leaving the meadow to enter the “magic woods” (I borrowed that term from a friend) was breath-taking, even back then. I do not think I have ever seen, since then, as many different species of wild flowers as covered the open spaces amid the pin oaks and grapevines in the woods. There were blossoms of every color an artist could slap on his palette, and some that I don’t think the acrylic manufacturers could create.
My favorites were the buttercups and the wine cups, not to mention the Indian paintbrushes. Which of those splendid blossoms attracted the swarms (yes, they seemed as numerous as bees back then) of butterflies, I don’t know for sure. I used to think they were attracted to the buttercups, -- a child’s mind would think that BUTTERcups attract BUTTERflies, I guess.
I used to pick the wild flowers and place colorful blossoms on the branches of the cedar trees, making Christmas trees in April or May. Unfortunately, I couldn’t entice the butterflies to land on the cedar trees; they would have looked like colorful angels on the trees.
Because of the recent butterfly migration, I have done a little research on the beautiful creatures. I discovered that there are 92 species of butterflies and moths in the state of Texas, and I was able to look at photographs of some of these. Some of the butterflies have an exquisite beauty, and some of the moths are very eye-catching, -- not exactly beautiful, but attractive in unique ways. I did see what I thought was one of the kinds of butterflies in our yard, -- the Mimosa Yellow Sulphim (from an artist’s perspective, a very vivid yellow).
The butterfly I am watching flutter by at the moment is not found on the website I was visiting. Of the 92 varieties shown on the site, the ones my aesthetic eye liked the best were the Monarch, the Mourning Cloak, the Silvery Checkerspot, and the Red-spotted Purple Admiral. I haven’t yet found a way to lure specific species of butterflies into your yard.
Like other creatures, different types of butterflies prefer different habitats. Some like salt marshes, while some like lowland forests, sand dunes, wetlands, mountainous regions and grasslands. Generally speaking, rocky terrain and bare ground give larvae a place to find an adequate food supply as well as for the adults to lounge in the sun. More than 400 species can live in one area at the same time, so food supply is an important consideration.
I’m trying to understand what we can add to our backyard that would help with the food supply and encourage new fluttering and pre-fluttering residents. Since butterflies transition from eggs to caterpillars to winged creatures, a food supply is needed for the various stages. Caterpillars especially like milkweed, as they “eat” the plants; and, unlike other crawlies, they like the taste of milkweed. In the butterfly stage, they suck the nectar from the blossoms; however, both caterpillars and butterflies like Queen Anne’s Lace, violets, Shasta daisies, hollyhocks, marigolds, and zinnias. So I’m supposing that the stems and leaves of these plants would be food for the caterpillars and the blossoms, food for the lovely winged ones.
No doubt the reason there were so many more butterfly meccas in rural areas like Dime Box back in the 1930’s and ‘40’s than there are today is the burgeoning construction of housing developments and shopping centers (which destroy habitats). Added to that modern-day reality is the increased use of insecticides and other chemicals in farming and gardening. Back in my childhood in Dime Box, there were many “magic woods” that were pristine, unspoiled areas of cedars, pin oaks, grapevines, wild flowers and blooming meadow grass. I’m hoping to turn my backyard into one of those pre-modernity “magic woods.”
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.