Want to help butterflies? Choose the right plants, says local author, expert

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Surrounded by shoulder-high butterfly bushes and other plants as monarch butterflies flit in the warm afternoon sun in her Westland backyard, Brenda Dziedzic is succinct about what she does for a living these days. 

“I get to play with bugs!” she says with a laugh.

Dziedzic (pronounced Dee-zick), a self-taught butterfly and moth expert and author, does a lot more than play with bugs. She nurtures, grows and helps raise a range of butterfly and moth species, doing her part one chrysalis at a time to help these beloved winged creatures. 

Now, Dziedzic, 67 — who also started a popular butterfly house at Barson’s Greenhouse in Westland — has written a new book to help butterfly enthusiasts raise the insects in their own backyards. Detailing the life cycle for 40 different butterfly and moth species, “Raising Butterflies in the Garden” (Firefly, $24.95), hit shelves this month.

Dziedzic in her backyard.

Dziedzic says with the right mix of plants, just about anyone can lure  butterflies to his or her garden.

If someone “has host plants and nectar plants, they will attract butterflies,” she said.

Dziedzic’s detailed guide — which is an update to an earlier book she wrote in 2011 — is written for both amateurs and more experienced butterfly gardeners, breaking down in great detail which  plants attract roughly 40 species of butterflies and moths, including swallowtails, brushfoots, skippers and silk moths. It also maps out the life cycle of each species.

"Raising Butterflies in the Garden" (Firefly Books) shows the life cycles of 40 different kinds of butterflies and moths and lists the host and nectar plants they rely on.

“It’s all step by step,” said Dziedzic, sitting in her Westland living room a few weeks ago with several mesh enclosures nearby, some filled with chrysalises and cocoons, which are what caterpillars create before they emerge as butterflies or moths. 

Her book comes roughly 20 years after Dziedzic first got into butterflies herself. Her degree is actually in electronic engineering technology and she spent nearly 30 years doing technical work at AT&T before retiring in 2007.

But Dziedzic was always drawn to the outdoors. Growing up in Waterford Township, she loved being out in nature. It was as an adult, though, that she noticed her own backyard wasn’t attracting many butterflies in 2001. She decided to do something about it. 

After doing a little research, she went to a local Frank’s nursery to buy plants to create her own butterfly garden. There, by chance, she met a woman, Lois Hansen, who really help set her on her path to learning about butterflies. Hansen told her the nursery didn’t have the kind of plants she needed. She directed Dziedzic to nurseries that carried native plants and even gave Dziedzic plants from her own garden. 

“She also brought over several books about butterflies for me to read,” writes Dziedzic in the introduction to her book. “That was it. I was hooked.”

A giant swallowtail caterpillar.

Today, it’s Dziedzic who is the expert. She helped Barson’s create their own butterfly house (she no longer runs it but is still a consultant there). She also helped Ray Wiegand’s Nursery in Macomb Township with some advice as they expanded their own butterfly house this summer.

Erma Rhadigan, whose father founded Wiegand’s and is now a co-owner, met Dziedzic through Barsons’ owners. She calls her the “the queen of knowledge” when it comes to butterflies and moths.

“She has taught me a lot and I go to her book countless times every year to look up the day length of the butterfly eggs to see when they hatch and anything I need to know,” said Rhadigan. “It is an easy read and I find facts all the time. I’m always texting Brenda with pictures and questions.”

Dziedzic’s book is divided into groups —  swallowtails; whites and sulphurs; blues; brushfoots; skippers; and silk moths — and delves into detail about how to identify each species; the type of host and larval plants it likes; and its life cycle. Dziedzic shot more than 90% of the photos in “Raising Butterflies in the Garden” herself.

A red-spotted purple butterfly in the backyard of Brenda Dziedzic.

Her technical background really lent itself to her research. She journals her findings  religiously, from the size of a species’ eggs to images of caterpillars. Dziedzic said she’s so meticulous because she wants to know those details herself.

“I’m a techie,” she says. “...I wanted to know how many days (they) are in the egg, how big they are when they come out. I wanted to know everything. So I just journaled all of this.”

Dziedzic, who also co-founded the Southeast Michigan Butterfly Association, said some species stay basically the same but others, such as the  black swallowtail, change a lot. 

“I thought I should write a book so other people will know when they find something what it is,” she said. “I like to educate people. That’s basically what I want to do — just want to share what I know with others.”

And Dziedzic will keep sharing that knowledge throughout the fall and winter. She has book signings planned in Florida and Texas this fall — one of her grown children lives in Texas. She’ll also lead two separate groups to a small Mexican village outside Mexico City in February, where they’ll see the massive gathering  of monarchs over-wintering at sanctuaries.

“There’s millions, just millions,” said Dziedzic. 

Dziedzic says one reason why she leads trips to Mexico is for people to see how important habitat is. She also discourages the use of pesticides.

“I lead these trips to Mexico because I want people to experience the millions of monarchs that have made it all the way from Canada and the United States to the monarch sanctuaries in Mexico,” she says. “It’s a breathtaking experience. To hear the flutter of the millions of monarch wings and see the masses all over the trees and in the sky, it is truly an experience that can only be truly appreciated if you are there.”


Butterflies & Book Signings

  • Dziedzic will lead a talk at 11 a.m. Saturday,  ”Attract Butterflies to Your Garden," followed by a book signing at Ray Wiegand's Nursery & Garden Center, 47747 Romeo Plank Road, Macomb Township.
  • Dziedzic will do a book signing at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Southeast Michigan Butterfly Association meeting. The meeting's theme is “Creating Butterfly Garden Gifts & Keepsakes Workshop." The workshop is $3 for nonmembers. The meeting is at the Maplewood Community Center (in the Maple Room), 31735 Maplewood ST., Garden City.