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Gardening From New Zealand
by Gill Jackson
September 3, 2000

An ancient Indian legend says that to make a wish come true is to whisper it to a butterfly.... what a lovely thought and I can well understand how that legend has come about - butterflies are such graceful, beautiful and ethereal 'insects'.

In Australia, there are 403 described species of butterflies. North of Mexico, hosts 760 species , and over 10,000 species of moths, and Mexico has about 2000 butterfly species. Europe and North Africa boast 440 species.

Here in New Zealand we do not have many varieties - I have been told there are only about 16 species and more than half of this number are seldom seen. However, to compensate for this lack of butterflies, our native moth fauna is very extensive, with over 1200 kinds.

The difference between moths and butterflies? Whilst moths are dull-coloured generally (and there is the odd exception to this rule), butterflies are brightly coloured, fold their wings face to face vertically, have slender antennae - clubbed at the tip, and are day-fliers. Moths fold their wings horizontally and backwards, or tent-wise over the body, have furry tapered antennae, and are noctural. Butterflies and moths belong to the order "Lepidoptera", which means 'scale-winged".

The Monarch butterly is probably the best known butterfly in New Zealand, having migrated orginally from North America. Entomologists are unsure when the Monarch first reached our shores but, thank goodness, they did! This butterfly and it's life cycle is very intriguing. The winged form of a butterfly has been used as a symbol for the human soul since ancient times. The physical metamorphosis of a butterfly has been compared to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ since the dawn of Christiananity. Portrayed through the imagery of butterflies is the transforming process of spiritual rebirth.

Monarchs are charming creatures to rear, and since the life cycle occupies only about 6 weeks, they are ideal for children to observe. The life cycle is one of complete metamorphosis involving 4 main stages of development - egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult (butterfly).

Moving on from the Monarch - we have the butterly "Painted Lady" which is a brightly coloured migrant hailing from Australia. This has been recorded in most districts but seldom occurs abundantly.

Native to NZ - 'Red Admiral' - a velvety-brown butterfly with prominent red markings on its wings which tend to fade to orange in old age. The caterpillar is blackish with green undersides.

'Yellow Admiral" has yellow markings on the upper wings instead of red and is a migratory butterfly from Australia and the South Pacific. The source of food for this caterpillar is the common stinging nettle(ongaonga) as it is for the Red Admiral.

'Common Blue' is a much smaller butterfly that generally keeps close to the ground. This has pale blue wings with brownish borders and is abundant during summer in sheltered grassland and sand dunes.

The pesky white butterfly which invades our gardens over summer is another introduction from Europe and arrived here between 1929 and 1930. The male of this species has one black spot on each forewing and the female has two. Best way of dealing with them? A tennis racket is great to squat them with if you feel the desire!

Butterflies need nectar plants to sip from, and the shape of the flower is imperative as butterflies cannot hover for long and need a landing platform, and easy access to the nectar. They are attracted to a garden by fragrance as well as by colour and shape. Suggested plants to attract, and provide food for butterflies are as follows:

  • Asclepias physocarpa or Giant Swanplant - creamy white flowers,
  • Asclepias 'Silky Gold' - yellow/gold flowers and grows to 1.2 m,
  • Asclepias curassarica, or blood flower - orange/red flowers and grows to about 1 m.,
  • Alyssum,
  • Abretia,
  • Buddleia,
  • Callistemon/Cosmos/Candytuft
  • (Iberis),
  • Dandelion,
  • Echinacea,
  • Golden Rod (Solidago),
  • Heliotrope 'Cherry Pie',
  • Lavender,
  • Michaelmas daisy,
  • Monarda didyma,
  • Rudbeckia,
  • Sedum Spectabile,
  • Phlox,
  • Zinnia, and
  • Wallflower.
If you wish to feed butterflies, you can make a nectar from sugar and water. Do not use honey - honey is good for humans but dangerous to butterflies. It can carry fungal diseases which affect insects that drink from the nectar water we provide for them. Wild bee populations and local hives can get affected as well as butterflies. Honey may also affect birds. It is safest to use a sugar mixture or glucose mixed with water. The solution should be sweet enough to taste only). Pour this nectar onto a sponge or paper towel and place the butterfly on to it.

Butterflies are particularly vulnerable to changes within the environment. They need the food from wild plants, and require open countryside, both of which are becoming more rare. A lot of our newer plant varieties have little fragrance, so try growing the older-fashioned plants instead of the new hybrids. These beautiful and delicate insects are also vulnerable to pesticides and spray drift from chemicals, especially whilst in their larvae form. Their other predators are ants, spiders, shield bugs, parasitic wasps and flies, birds and frogs.

Let's encourage these wonderful miracles of nature into our gardens by providing them with a safe haven and ample food - and in so doing, hopefully, we will be rewarded with being able to whisper our innermost wishes to a butterfly, or two, on a daily basis!!

Happy Gardening!

-I am an organic gardener - promote the use of non-chemical sprays and fertilisers. I use seaweed, comfrey and compost. Love nature and animals. My preference is for cottage gardening - flowers, fragrance and textures. Married with grown up (thank goodness!) step-children and one little Bichon Frise "Rosie". I look after properties for overseas owners - primarily tending their gardens and this has now lead into renting some of these properties out as holiday accommodation - www.guesthouse.co.nz

Email: paws.for.thought@xtra.co.nz
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