Driving through the neighborhood with its tidy monoculture of neatly trimmed turf grass, you would never imagine that a butterfly haven lies farther down the block. But then you park your car and catch a glimpse of a giant white butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and a Kentucky wisteria (W. macrostachya) towering over the small city lot that’s jam-packed with a motley array of tall Phlox, Monarda, Salvia, dill (Anthum graveolens), Cleome, Helianthus and Echinacea.
And not a blade of turfgrass anywhere.
For those who might not get the point, a sign by the fence announces to passersby that this garden of Dennis and June Finnegan on the far South Side of Chicago is an official Monarch Waystation, a space where plants have been selected to feed, nourish, shelter and help preserve the beloved but increasingly threatened native monarch butterfly.
Along the way, the Finnegans are also providing a haven for tiger swallowtails, black swallowtails, red-spotted purples, admirals, commas, question marks, sulfurs, painted ladies, mourning cloaks and silver-spotted skippers. June Finnegan has photographed them all.
This is what biodiversity in the garden gets you.
But there’s more. Adjacent to the front fence, you will notice the asphalt driveway that long ago crowded out the family car and relegated it to second-class status on the street. Some of the plants here feed the butterflies; some feed the people. Giant circular containers and rectangular Earth Boxes bursting with vegetables now line up chockablock on either side of the 6-by-8-foot greenhouse that’s currently Mission Central for Dennis Finnegan’s hydroponically grown vegetables. He bought the greenhouse as a kit and has been as happy as a kid in a toy store installing it and devising paraphernalia as he embarks on his hydroponics adventure.
The Finnegans have lived on this 29-foot-wide lot for 20 years, with June the primary gardener in the early days. She hails from a distinguished garden background with a father who tended vegetables on four city lots and was once a finalist in the annual Victory Garden contest on PBS. When Dennis started gardening, he too was drawn to vegetables and now regularly starts seeds indoors under grow-lights during the winter.
June is the one who first got interested in butterflies. “I read an article about butterfly gardening, so I began purchasing flowering plants,” she recalls. “Then I read about dill as a plant to attract swallowtails. By adding dill, I got lots of swallowtails but also lots of dill [since it seeds itself all over]. So I started growing the dill in pots to keep it from taking over the yard. I also grow parsley and fennel for the swallowtails.”
An interest in monarchs soon followed, which led her to start adding different kinds of milkweed. A standard monarch favorite is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), usually available at local garden centers, but the Finnegans also grow less common species such as horsetail (a.k.a. whorled) milkweed (A. verticillata), the rosy-flowering swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) and a white-flowering cultivar of swamp milkweed called ‘Ice Ballet’. All four are perennials and winter hardy – the A. verticillata to Zone 4 and the others to Zone 3. They also grow the tropical milkweed (A. curassavica) that’s an annual for us but easy to start from seed. It’s also possible to find it as a transplant in local garden centers.
Holding pride of place in the front yard is butterfly bush, a shrub that’s a must-have for anyone who wants to attract all kinds of butterflies. The plant is massive, around 8 feet tall, with white flowers, but there are varieties with dark purple, lavender and pink flowers as well. “In July it’s covered with pollinators,” marvels June. Recent breeding has led to the introduction of dwarf varieties that can be grown in containers. Buddleias often die back to the ground in winter but usually grow back from their roots come spring.
“There’s lots of nectar for butterflies in this garden,” notes June. “It’s a condensed area, a little island, and things start flowering early.” Still, she was puzzled this past April when she saw a mourning cloak flitting about. What could it feed on at that point in the year, she wondered? Unlike the monarchs, which migrate to Mexico to spend the winter, mourning cloaks and swallowtails overwinter here. Swallowtails overwinter as chrysalises and emerge as adult butterflies in spring; mourning cloaks overwinter as adult butterflies.
With so many nourishing plants, adult butterflies regularly lay their eggs in the Finnegan garden, and June has even caught a female monarch in the act. Since there are preying mantids (a mixed blessing since they will eat beneficial as well as pernicious critters), June often moves eggs and caterpillars into screened indoor cages for protection.
Once the eggs hatch, monarch caterpillars are fed with a regular diet of milkweed leaves. Swallowtail caterpillars eat dill, parsley and fennel. After a couple of weeks the monarch caterpillars move to the top of their cage and begin hanging upside down. In 10 to 14 days, they metamorphose into chrysalises that look like pale green capsules sporting a delicate gold “necklace.” Ten days after that, they emerge as butterflies.
The chrysalises of swallowtails look more like a ragged piece of bark – a very useful camouflage since the ones that overwinter outdoors sometimes attach themselves to trees. This past winter, the Finnegans overwintered 20 swallowtails in screened cages and by the end of May, six had eclosed (opened and been sent on their way into the world).
When it comes to butterflies, it truly is a case of “build it and they will come.”
How Do You Get to Be a Monarch Waystation?
Go to the Monarch Watch website (monarchwatch.org), which has a comprehensive listing of information about monarch butterflies. Click on the link to the Monarch Waystation Program (monarchwatch.org/waystations), and fill out the registration form that asks you to provide information about the numbers and kinds of plants you grow that are beneficial to monarchs.
Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, says, “Monarch butterfly populations are declining due to loss of habitat. To assure a future for monarchs, conservation and restoration of milkweeds need to be a priority.”
Editor Carolyn Ulrich has written for Chicagoland Gardening since its inception. She is a former weekly garden columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and has received several awards for magazine writing from the Garden Writers Association.