Master Gardener: Numerous butterflies noted recently

Master Gardener

by Marianne Schotzko

University of Minnesota Master Gardener, Brown County

For the past month, I have been noting a large amount of brown and orange butterflies that are smaller than the Monarch butterflies that I normally see in our area. I have watched many, many land on the flowers in my garden and even more are resting on the moist gravel roads in our area. The butterflies get nectar from the flowers and salts from the gravel roads. According to Elaine Evans, U of MN Extension Educator, these butterflies are Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui). The Painted Lady butterfly is one of the most widely distributed of all butterfly species, but is not frequently seen in Minnesota most years.

These butterflies are spending time in flower gardens, roadside plantings, native plantings, and wildlife acres gathering nectar to fortify them for their migration to southwestern United States and northern Mexico. You can help these butterflies on their journey south by making sure that you have flowers to provide them the nectar they are searching for. Keeping your garden free of pesticides is very helpful. The Painted Lady butterfly prefers nectar from composites that are 3 to 6 feet high, especially thistles (seem to be plenty of them in roadside ditches), also aster, cosmos, blazing star, ironweed, joe-pye weed, red clover and milkweeds. Many of these plants can also serve as food for the caterpillars if the adults make it this far north again next year. Unlike Monarch caterpillars, which require milkweed, the Painted Lady caterpillars have been found on over 100 different host plants, but favorites include thistles and legumes.

According to Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, this is probably the largest migration he has seen in over 30 years. These larger migrations often follow rainy periods in their wintering grounds.

If you spend any time in a garden with a variety of blooming flowers, you are likely to enjoy the Painted Lady flitting from flower to flower as we enjoy these fall days here in southwestern Minnesota.