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Keeping butterflies in the garden

  • Juliana Jensen
  • When I was a child, one of my greatest solitary pleasures was to stand still in my garden and watch as a butterfly slowly dropped down to rest on my head or sometimes my arm or even my outstretched hand. In the summer our garden was full of mourning cloak butterflies with lovely wings flashing butter-yellow edges under dark brown “cloaks.”

    I don’t know what it was that attracted the butterflies to our garden then, but I can tell you what will attract butterflies to your garden now. If you provide butterflies with the food they need, they will come.

    Butterflies feed on the nectar of flowers. A beautiful, abundant flower garden can be Sunday brunch at the Ritz for a butterfly. One plant attractive to butterflies is commonly known, naturally enough, as the butterfly milkweed plant, Asclepias tuberosa. These handy, low-maintenance plants have showy flowers rich in nectar. Even better, although they are not natives, they act as host plants for Monarch larva, as well as feeding the adult butterflies.

    Other easy to grow plants that attract butterflies include yarrow, hyssop, California poppy, California lilac, lavatera, catmint, cranesbill, germander, lantana, black-eyed Susans, and pretty yellow coreopsis. The beautiful Cecile Brunner rose actually acts as a host plant for butterfly species.

    Of course, the very best plants for the butterflies are native plants. Since the plant and butterfly species evolved together, native plants naturally support native butterflies by providing both the nectar they need to thrive and the larval plant host they need for laying their eggs. Butterflies are particular about where they lay their eggs as the caterpillars can eat only certain plants.

    An interesting butterfly you can attract to your garden is the pipevine swallowtail, Battus philenor. As the name suggests, these butterflies lay their eggs only on the undersides of leaves of members of the pipevine family, such as the California Dutchman’s pipe, Aristolochia californica and Virginia snakeroot, Aristolochia serpentaria. As the larval caterpillars consume the native pipevine, a chemical in the plant makes the caterpillars poisonous to birds and so birds avoid them. Other butterflies have evolved to mimic their size and coloring so that they too will be protected from hungry birds. In fact, the pinevine swallowtail can be difficult to identify because several other butterflies are very similar in appearance. In addition to providing a larval host to these butterflies, the pipevine is a cool-looking plant.

    Other California natives that attract butterflies include hummingbird sage, ceanothus ‘Concha,’ and silver bush lupine.

    The good news is that many butterfly plants are drought-tolerant. Among those that are especially low in water use are salvia, lavatera, pineapple guava, rose snapdragon, “Concha” ceanothus, and yarrow. Butterfly plants can also be fire-safe. For example, lantana and coneflowers are excellent butterfly plants that are also fire-safe.

    You can find a full list of plants that attract butterflies on the Marin Master Gardener website atmarinmg.org, and on the home page click on “Plant Showcase.” Under that link search for “butterflies” to discover a number of articles. In fact, the website is a spectacular resource for all kinds of plant information including, such as water-wise plants. If you click on the Latin name you will get more information on the plant, often including a picture.

    I haven’t had a swallowtail dip down from my germander and land on my hand, but I get great pleasure seeing its brilliant yellow wings against the magenta flower sprays. Still, I spend a lot of time in my garden, so you never know.