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Doreen Fogle: Cultivate garden for butterflies

A chrysalis of the Pipevine Swallowtail on the stem of a Pipeline.
Photo by Nancy Gilbert |

The Butterfly Bushes are popping open now, and they will be sending out their blooms from now until about November. They provide pollen and nectar for all sorts of bees, especially native bees, hummingbirds, and, of course, butterflies. We all enjoy seeing butterflies.

I think of them as being the flowers of the sky. Having a Butterfly Bush in your yard is a fun magnet to draw in and observe all of these pollinators.

But for a butterfly nectar is only half the story. In order to have a butterfly you need to have food for the caterpillar. For each species of butterfly the food for the caterpillar is a specific native plant. The plant and the butterfly evolved together. However, some substitutions can be made.



Life as a butterfly begins as an egg. The female butterfly lays her eggs on the underside of leaves of a host plant or near a host plant. When the eggs hatch the tiny caterpillars, larvae, start munching down the leaves. Yes, caterpillars cause leaf damage, that’s life, and caterpillars don’t live for very long.

As a caterpillar grows it breaks through its old skin and emerges with its new, larger skin! It does this four or five times, each stage is called an instar.




To go through its metamorphosis the final instar leaves its larval host plant to find a quiet spot to pupate. The caterpillar attaches itself to the underside of a twig, stem, or something, and morphs into a chrysalid. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar becomes completely unrecognizable, turning into a gooey substance before laying down the new features of the adult butterfly.

Once the adult emerges, it pumps fluid into its wings to expand them. It takes its tongue, which starts out long and flat with grooves, and closes it up Zip-lock style to make a nice sipping straw. Then off it goes to search for nectar to fuel its mating and egg laying behaviors.

If you would like to see more butterflies, consider creating a butterfly garden. The components of a butterfly garden will attract and feed the adults and will also provide a food source for the young — the larval host plant.

Generally, adult butterflies are attracted to red, yellow, orange, pink, and purple flowers. Some good nectar plants are the milkweeds (hosting Monarch larvae as well), Echinaceas, oreganos (some are very ornamental), Globe Amaranth, marigolds, Tithonia, Scabiosa, Lavender, Asters, Black-eyed Susans, Zinnias, Goldenrodand Butterfly Bush. Plan for flowers throughout the warm season.

A butterfly garden needs to be sheltered from wind and have midday sun. Since they are cold blooded animals, butterflies need to have temperatures between 82 — 102 degrees for their wings to operate. You may see them on a stone basking and slowly moving their wings to help them warm up. Including a few flat stones in the garden will help them. Include in your butterfly garden some wet soil, just a spot of it. It’s mostly for males and it’s called puddling. They extract minerals and other nutrients from it.

A variety of Swallowtails are out these days. The larval host plant for many of these butterflies are trees and shrubs such as willow, aspen, alder, and coffeeberry. The native willows also host Mourning Cloaks. Oaks host Hairstreaks.

The Pipevine Swallowtail, featured in the photos, use the California Pipevine as its host plant. This plant can be found in the woods around here and can be grown in our yards with part shade and just a few waterings through the summer. Trained on a fence or trellis makes for great viewing.

The Anise Swallowtail lives on members of the parsley family. I think this is a case where the substitutions of other members of the plant family will work as host plants because the caterpillars scarf up the leaves of dill, fennel, and parsley, but these are not natives. There are, however, native counterparts, only in more remote places. So when these are in your garden they provide caterpillar food and when they bloom they feed the butterflies and many other beneficial insects!

Just about all Fritillaries need violets as a host. Fritillaries do not lay their eggs on the violets, but near them, in the fall, whereupon they hatch and sleep through the winter until the violets start growing again. So when you are raking up your lawn with violets in it, you may well be removing the little eggs or caterpillars. Remember this. Perhaps you can set aside a space with violets that isn’t so tidy. In fact all the butterflies need some debris in the garden to pupate.

There are several milkweeds that will host Monarchs. The most locally native ones are Asclepias speciosa, A. fascicularis, A. cordifolia, and A. eriocarpa. Many of these are available from the Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society Plant Sale coming up in the fall. Another showy one is the Asclepias tuberosa.

Grasses and sedges host Skippers. Consider the native deer grass, Muhlenbergia rigens, and the native sedges, Carex pansa and C. praegracilis. Both the sedges can be used as a lawn substitute, as I have previously written about.

There is so much more to learn about, all easily found online.

Butterfly gardening is becoming very popular, most likely motivated by the reduced populations of these animals. Increased roadside spraying, land cleared for homes and non-native landscapes, farmland intolerant of weeds and urban sprawl have reduced native plant populations and butterflies. The onus is on us to help preserve butterflies. They are an important source of food for birds and the rest of the food chain.

Doreen Fogle is a Nevada City-based landscape design consultant with Delightful Gardens. She can be reached at doreenfogle@gmail.com.


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