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Monarchs may be the most famous butterfly species, but you can attract and support all kinds of vibrant, useful pollinators year-round in the Hudson Valley. (Photo: Matthew Fass)

How to Better Attract and Support Butterflies

Go beyond planting milkweed and colorful flowers — there's much more you can do to invite pollinators around the Hudson Valley.

by Kat Merry
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Many of us dream of having a butterfly haven in our own backyard, but creating a utopia for these enchanting fliers goes beyond planting milkweed. As spring blooms across the Hudson Valley, there are multiple ways to not only attract a slew of vibrant butterflies, but also continue to support these pretty pollinators year-round. The secret, local experts say, begins with intentionality.

Start with a Goal

Are you just looking for variety in who stops by your yard come warm weather, for instance? Or are you looking to support pollinators year-round? Entomologist Conrad Vispo of the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program is an expert in increasing biodiversity in local farms and parks across the Hudson Valley. He says it’s critical to identify goals like those when coming up with an approach to attracting butterflies in your own backyard.

A spicebush swallowtail is among the more dramatic butterfly species you can attract. (Photo: Frank Beres)

If your goal is simply to see more vibrant fliers stopping by to say hello this spring, Vispo says to consider branching out from common milkweed and start planting more of a variety. “Non-toxic plants like asters, thistles, and sweet alyssum can attract and create a diverse and inviting environment for a wide range of butterflies to stop by,” he says.

However, if you have bigger goals, like wanting to support and increase the pollinator population overall, you’ll need to think more holistically. “Consider the full life cycle of your local butterflies,” Vispo says. “Larvae and adults have different needs, and if you do your homework, you can provide feeder plants that support all stages in the butterfly life cycle.” This kind of thinking can lead to a sustainable garden that will support generations of fliers over the seasons.

With careful planting and planning, you can support local pollinators’ needs beyond the summer months. (Photo: Matthew Fass)

Don’t Discount the Colder Months

More than 100 species of butterflies are present in the Hudson Valley, and most of these colorful creatures do not migrate south when the weather gets cooler. They stick around in a hibernation-like phase called overwintering, says Scenic Hudson natural resources manager Dan Smith.

Certain practices, he says, can help protect overwintering of butterflies and maintain a safe environment for butterflies to lay their eggs between seasons.

Unlike the famous monarch, most butterfly species overwinter in place rather than migrate to warmer climates. (Photo: Peter Stewart)

Butterflies such as the mourning cloak and the Eastern comma overwinter and seek shelter in protected places like the hollows of a tree or in tree bark crevices. During the onset of colder months, species like these lay their eggs in locations such as hollowed-out stems of dead flowers, awaiting the return of warmer weather for hatching.

The overwintering process is often overlooked as temperatures drop. To prevent any disruptions to it, Smith recommends leaving “some piles of dead leaves in your backyard to protect the butterflies who may be overwintering in them, and [avoiding] chopping your flower beds to the ground when they die off, because it’s likely there are butterfly and other pollinator eggs in the stems.” 

Leaving intact flower beds and piles of dead leaves allows space for butterflies to leave their eggs when overwintering. (Photo: Frank Beres)

Think Outside the Box

Care to venture beyond plants to draw butterflies? Other species like the mourning cloak butterfly can be attracted to sweet substances like tree sap and an overripe banana, so leaving these out in your yard may be another way to draw some more fliers your way. Just be sure to bring them back inside when the sun sets, to avoid inviting unwanted rodents or crawlers to your garden.

Seek Native Plant Resources and Local Inspo

When it comes to planning your backyard plants, don’t limit yourself to the colorful flower beds. Vispo notes, “host plants extend beyond flowers to include grasses, shrubs, and trees. It’s important to do your homework on all types of native plants and pollinators.”

Native plants — including grasses, shrubs, and trees — are outstanding at supporting pollinators. (Photo: Alison Klein)

For example, to attract the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, you’ll need to plant native spicebush. By diversifying plant life in your backyard, you can enhance your chances of seeing and supporting more species of butterflies. “Embracing the movement of incorporating more native plants into your backyard garden,” Smith says, “is a great way to not only attract butterflies, but sustain populations over generations.”

Partners for Climate Action HV recently launched the Hudson Valley Pollinator Action Guide, a comprehensive toolkit for anyone looking to support fragile local pollinator populations using native plant species and restoration techniques appropriate to the region. They’ve also been working with the Hudson Valley Seed Company on a local native seed mix to help protect the biodiversity of native species by preserving local plant genetics. You can also check out some local resources like Wild Gardens Nursery in Cortlandt Manor or The Old Dairy Nursery & Gardens in Rhinebeck, where you can purchase native plants and shrubs. Old Dairy even offers a “Hudson Valley Native Garden,” a pollinator starter-kit that includes eleven carefully selected plants that can enhance your garden year-round.

Careful management of meadows and mowing schedules helps protect pollinator habitat. (Photo: Matthew Fass)

Seeking inspiration and fliers that flutter beyond your own backyard? Get out and explore the butterfly habitats in your local parks.

In his years maintaining butterfly habitats in the Hudson Valley, Smith emphasizes, “meadow management and specific mowing schedules between seasons can protect and support new generations of butterflies year-round.” This explains impressive sightings of colorful butterflies flitting along local preserves and parks across the Hudson Valley.

Careful planting and mowing schedules at a range of local parks help support butterfly populations. (Photo: Frank Beres)

Here are some great spots to catch a glimpse of the vibrant creatures this season:

  • West Point Foundry Preserve
  • Poets’ Walk Park
  • Harrier Hill Park
  • Franny Reese State Park
  • Long View Park
West Point Foundry Preserve, Poets’ Walk Park, Harrier Hill Park, Franny Reese State Park, and Long View Park are among the regional green spaces that are great for butterfly-watching. (Photo: Frank Beres)

Interested in going deeper? For those in the mid- to lower Hudson Valley, a new Putnam-Westchester chapter of the North American Butterfly Society has just formed.

With a little effort, thoughtful planning, and appreciation for the intricate needs of these delicate pollinators, you can create a haven that not only attracts but also sustains a diverse array of butterflies year-round.

Kat Merry holds a master’s degree in science and spends weekends exploring new hiking trails in the Hudson Valley with her husband and dog. Based in Beacon, she writes for local news publications such as the River, the Highlands Current and MainStreetBeacon.com.

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