Thursday, October 06, 2016

Surroundings! Surroundings! Surroundings!

For most of the 39 years that Mars and I have gardened at our current location we have tried to attract butterflies and hummingbirds – with limited success.

It started in earnest with a butterfly house that our son Bram gave me.  Both he, who was a teenage non-gardener and had no reason to know better, and I thought that the homestead itself was the draw.  And that soon after it was put into place atop the pole with which it came, kaleidoscopes (aka swarms or rabbles) of large fragile-winged, colorful insects would literally flock into our yard to reside in our brand-spanking-new Lepidoptera dorm. 

We forgot the basic law of real estate, “Location! Location! Location!”

Not the street address – rather the physical location within which the landing pad was placed.  “Surroundings! Surroundings! Surroundings!”  We needed a butterfly garden to surround our butterfly house.

The wooden dwelling with vertical slots is intended as a resting place for insects, which happen to be in the area for another reason –an overnight pad within which to crash after an all-day nectar binge garden party. 

Not a problem.  There was no shortage of lists of what to grow in your butterfly garden.  We initially went, as I recall, with the usual suspects: butterfly bush and bee balm added to the daisies, cardinal plants, and false dragonheads that already occupied the area. We also acquired some kind of “prairie flower”.  I remember that the nurseryman imitated its movement in a breeze by flailing his arms back and forth and twisting his body like the inflatable “air dancers” that advertise the presence of car dealers and other roadside retail businesses.

We planted the garden in early spring.  By autumn the prairie flowers had been swallowed up by their fellow plants and never were seen again.  A few butterflies came by for a look and a quick sip – roughly the same number that came before we put in our alfresco nectar saloon.  None stayed overnight as far as we could tell.  But then again it would have been dark and the insects would have hidden themselves within their narrow bed apertures – so who knows?

To help with the attempt, my in-laws gave us a “Butterfly Growing Kit” with a cup of 5 caterpillars, caterpillar chow, and a cardboard container within which to grow them.  When the time came, on a warm summer morning, we released the quintet of Monarchs into our butterfly garden.  They surveyed the offerings and left.

Sometime during the first couple of years the butterfly bush was pushed out by its neighbors – and over time we have added and subtracted various other butterfly attractors – such as loosestrife, hollyhock, Queen Anne’s Lace, sunflower – with no appreciable increase or decline in the count of Lepidoptera.

I know I shouldn’t take it personally.  Most butterflies have only a few weeks of life as an adult, winged creature so they are really pretty focused on eating and mating during the short time that they have.  Even the well-traveled Monarch has a brief and very busy life.  Those born in the summer breeding season live only 2-6 weeks. But the ones that migrate to Mexico are born in late summer, stay alive all winter, and migrate north the following spring – so whatever extra time they have is spent planning their vacation (getting passports, shots, directions, etc.)  None of them have the time to be your friend.

But I have not given up just yet.  On the web I came across suggestions and recipes for “butterfly bait” to draw the little flitters into our yard.

“Many butterflies prefer rotting fruit, tree sap, dung, carrion, urine, and other non-nectar sources of nutrients. [And who wouldn’t?] You can allow fruit from your fruit trees to decay on the ground, leave your pet’s droppings where they lie, or place a bit of raw meat or fish in a discreet part of your garden.”

 Or perhaps just blend them all together and spray a thick coat of the resulting liquor all over the body of a purple-and-red thrashing air dancer man that is tethered to the spot where the butterfly house once stood.

And as a side benefit we might get a good price for our two decade-old cars.

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