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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Butterfly Gardens

Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla)

Butterflies are among the most attractive visitors to any garden.   Their large size, bright colors and interesting habits make them a joy to watch. Even a brand new garden (like Mother Nature’s Backyard) can begin attracting butterflies.  We’ve delighted in Tiger Swallowtails, Mourning Cloaks and other butterflies nectaring this spring.  For recent pictures and a complete list of our insect visitors see the ‘Insect Visitors’ and ‘Insects Seen in Mother Nature’s Backyard’  pages to the right.

While some gardens attract lots of butterflies, most home gardens are less attractive to butterfly visitors.  A few butterflies may flit through - but they don’t stay long and may not return.  So, what is different about gardens that are successful butterfly gardens?   And how can we attract more of these lovely creatures to our own backyards?  Let’s consider some lessons learned from Mother Nature’s Backyard and other butterfly gardens. 

Umber Skipper nectaring on Purple Sage (Salvia Leucophylla)

The words ‘butterfly plant’ conjure up an image of plants with lots of bright flowers. But this kind of plant is just part of the story, as we'll see below.   Most adult butterflies feed on the nectar produced by some flowers (although some butterflies feed on fruit).  Butterflies have a tongue-like proboscis through which they literally ‘sip’ the nectar.   You can see the extended proboscis on the Umber Skipper butterfly in the picture above.

Not all flowers produce nectar – and not all nectar is equally tasty and abundant.  The plants most of us think of as ‘butterfly plants’ tend to be those that produce lots of sweet nectar.  Such plants often have many small flowers grouped in rather flat clusters – making it easy and efficient for butterflies to feed.  Some nectaring plants are also good at advertising: their flowers are bright red, yellow, orange or blue/purple and may be sweetly scented.  They look attractive to us and to the butterflies.

Western Yarrow (Achillea millefolia) cultivar 'Island red'

The first step in making your garden more butterfly-attractive is to decide if you want to just attract adult butterflies or whether you’d like butterflies to complete their entire life cycle in your yard. 

Drawing courtesy of
Open Door Web Site (© ODWS www.saburchill.com)

Most butterflies start as small eggs, go through several caterpillar stages (each a bit larger) and then form a cocoon (pupa).  The adult butterfly – which has changed (metamorphosed) from the caterpillar – then emerges from the cocoon.    The butterfly life cycle is fascinating to watch and a great education for children and adults alike.   And it can happen in your own garden!

Monarch butterfly emerging from chrysalis

If you decide to attract only adult butterflies.   There are many good plant choices, but you still need to choose the right plants.   One thing that puzzles home gardeners is why plants that look like they should be good butterfly plants turn out to be duds.   Common garden plants used for color – even some plants advertised as ‘butterfly plants’ – just don’t seem to attract the butterflies. There are several reasons why this may be so.  

Common non-native garden plants have been bred for large, attractive flowers and garden hardiness.  Selecting for these traits sometimes has negative consequences - at least from the perspective of insect visitors. Genes needed for proper nectar production may literally be lost or ‘bred out’ of some cultivars.  For others, it’s a question of limited energy: energy spent on large, colorful flowers can’t be used for producing nectar. Since many gardeners don’t collect seed, the fact that flowers don’t attract pollinators – and produce viable seed - is not viewed as a negative consequence by nurseries.  But it does explain – at least in part - why many colorful gardens are lacking in butterflies and other insect pollinators.  If you want to use non-native plants, choose older, open-pollinated varieties that are more likely to be good nectar producers.

Marine Blue butterfly on Deer Vetch (Lotus scoparius)

An even more fundamental reason explains why some ‘butterfly plants’ native to other areas don’t attract Southern California butterflies.  Butterflies and their native food sources literally ‘grew up together’ over time.  Over thousands of years, butterflies and food plants have adapted, making each better suited to the other.  In other words, they have become specialized.  When you plant a ‘butterfly bush’ from Australia, it’s not surprising that it doesn’t attract many butterflies.  After all that plant’s special butterflies are half-way around the world!   If you choose California native nectar plants then you’re much more likely to attract California native butterflies.   We’ve included a list of good ones at the end of this posting.

Monarch butterfly sunning near native Yarrow (Achillea millefolia)
If you choose to provide habitat for all butterfly life stages you are to be commended.  You're well on the road to becoming a modern, life-promoting gardener.   Your decision to provide butterfly habitat does have several consequences.  First, you’ll need to know what plants the caterpillars (larva) eat.  Larval and adult butterfly foods can be quite different, depending on the type of butterfly.   Caterpillar food plants are often very specific to a type of butterfly and may be rather plain looking.  That doesn’t matter to the caterpillar – they just need the right type of leaves to eat.  

Supply the right species of plant and butterflies will lay their eggs on it.  If you plant one of our native Milkweeds, for example, you'll attract female Monarch Butterflies. They pollinate the flowers and lay their eggs on the Milkweed leaves, insuring a ready source of food for their hatching larva. You likely already know that when Monarch caterpillars eat the Milkweed,  they ingest plant chemicals that protect them from predation by birds.  This is yet another example of insects (caterpillars) and California native plants evolving together to ensure survival of both plants and insects.

Monarch larvae on Milkweed
Providing complete butterfly habitat means there will be caterpillars in your garden.  So, consider carefully: are you  truly happy about sharing your garden with them?  If you're not, just plant the nectar plants and enjoy the adult butterflies - that's fine too.  Learn to identify the good caterpillars (we've given you some good resources below).  You don't want to get rid of a good guy just because s/he looks ugly (to you).  Some caterpillars are rather unusual looking. Note the use of camouflage by the two large catarpillars shown below.

Anise Swallowtail caterpillar - spots and stripes effectively hide
this large caterpillar from bird predators

Giant Swallowtail caterpillar looks like bird poop -
eew, that's a really effective trick to discourage predators

Caterpillars will eat some foliage – that’s what caterpillars do.  They usually will not destroy your larval food plants, although their leaves may look a little raggedly by summer’s end.   Your garden may not look as nice as gardens without caterpillars - but you're helping protect our lovely and fragile native butterflies by tolerating a bit of untidiness!

Deer Vetch (Lotus scoparius) - important larval food plant for
El Segundo and other Blue Butterflies - in the wild

As natural open spaces disappear, the need for gardeners to raise native larval food sources becomes more critical.  Some butterflies – like the Palos Verdes Blue and El Segundo Blue butterflies – are limited to one or two native larval food plants.  When these plants disappear, so do the butterflies.  So, if you really want to make an impact on local butterflies, plant larval food plants.  We’ve included a list of good plants at the end of this posting.

Deer Vetch (Lotus scoparius) in the native plant garden at
Madrona Marsh Nature Center

Twelve Things You Can Do to Attract Butterflies/Provide Butterfly Habitat

1.  Plant larval food plants. This is probably the single best way to attract more butterflies.  Be sure to plant enough of each type of plant.  A good rule of thumb is at least 6 square feet for a given type of food plant.  For example, you could plant two native Buckwheat plants, each covering 3-4 square feet (total area: 6-8 square feet).

2.  Plant nectar plants for adult food (see list).  Most of these plants have many colorful flowers.  If planting non-native plants, try to get ‘old-fashioned’ varieties. Be sure to have enough plants – 8-10 sq. feet total is best.  Feel free to provide a variety of plant species.  For example, you might include several types of buckwheat, milkweeds and yarrow in the same flower bed.

3.  Plant flowers that bloom at different times.  Try to include plants that bloom in spring, summer & fall.   In western Los Angeles county, some butterflies fly throughout the year.  Help insure that they have food at all times.

4.  Plan a sunny, protected area for butterflies to perch. Butterflies need to warm up on cool days.  They also need protection from the wind.  A sunny area with large shrubs makes a good perching area. The type of shrub doesn’t matter. But if you plant a large native shrub like Toyon or Ceanothus – or a citrus tree – you’ll provide both perches and a food source.  Butterflies will also perch on sunny rocks, walls, even on bare ground.

5.  Provide protected places for larva and pupa (cocoons). In many cases all that’s needed are some large, dense shrubs (any will do) or densely planted larval food plants. Don't prune your larval food plants - or leave some unpruned - until after butterflies have hatched.

6.  Provide a source of water & minerals. Butterflies need a shallow source of water.  Put a flat stone in your bird bath so butterflies can access the water.  The water should just cover the rock.  Alternatively provide an small area with moist/muddy soil.  Butterflies will drink and obtain needed minerals from the soil.

7.  Don’t use insecticides. They kill butterflies, too.  Hand remove, or use water or insecticidal soap if you need to control pests.

8.  Encourage your neighbors to butterfly garden.  If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a neighborhood to raise a butterfly.  You don’t need to provide all the habitat by yourself.  Join forces with your neighbors to provide good butterfly habitat and improve your neighborhood.

9.  Visit butterfly gardens for inspiration and information.

10.     Participate in butterfly activities. Local organizations sponsor July butterfly counts, butterfly surveys, classes and other activities.  These can be great ways to learn, promote native butterflies and meet others interested in butterflies.  Several possibilities are:

·         Los Angeles Butterfly Survey - http://www.nhm.org/site/activities-programs/community-science/butterfly-survey/how-to-participate

·         July Butterfly count – see Madrona Marsh calendar for July - http://www.friendsofmadronamarsh.com/j/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=42&Itemid=61

11.     Learn what common butterflies look like – at all their stages. Adult butterflies are easy to spot.  The eggs, caterpillars and pupa are more difficult.   You don’t want to remove a butterfly caterpillar or egg by mistaking it for a garden pest! Some good places to learn more about S. California butterflies are:

·         Garden Butterflies of Great Los Angeles - http://www.urbanwildlands.org/Resources/gardenbutterflies.pdf

·         Butterfllies & Their Larval Food Sources - http://mamba.bio.uci.edu/~pjbryant/biodiv/bflyplnt.htm

·         NABA L.A. pictures - http://www.naba.org/chapters/nabala/gallery.htm

·         Butterflies & Moths of S. California - http://www.calflora.net/butterflies/index.html

·         Southern California Butterflies - http://socalbutterflies.com/


·         Thomas J. Allen, Jim P. Brock, and Jeff Glassberg. A Field guide to Caterpillars. 2005. 0195149874 978-0195149876

·         T.C. Emmel, T.C. and J. F. Emmel:  Butterflies of Southern California. 1973. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
·         John S. Garth and J.W. Tilden : California Butterflies (CA natural History guides). 1985

·         Jeffrey Glassberg: Butterflies through Binoculars: The West . 2001.   0195106695 978-0195106695

·         Fred Heath & H. Clark: Introduction to Southern California Butterflies. 2004. Mountain Press Publishing – ISBN: 0-87842-475-X

·         Rudi Mattoni : Butterflies of Greater Los Angeles.  1990 - ISBN-13: 9780961146443

·         P. Opler and A. Wright : A Field Guide to Western Butterflies (Peterson Guide). 1999

·         Stewart, Bob. Common Butterflies of California. 1997- 0966307208 978-0966307207

12.     Learn more about butterfly gardening and native food plants at:

·         North American Butterfly Association: http://www.naba.org/

·         L.A Butterfly Gardening: http://www.naba.org/chapters/nabala/gardens.htm

·         Project SOUND food lists: adult & larval foods for western L.A. county: http://www.nbs.csudh.edu/biology/projectsound/habitat/default.shtml

·         Butterfly Obsession site: http://www.obsessionwithbutterflies.com/

·         CA Butterflies & Native Plants - http://www.laspilitas.com/butterflylist.htm
We also have a slide show on designing a butterfly garden at:

·   Butterfly Gardening in Southern California by Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

  • Butterfly Gardening--Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden by the Xerxes Society/ Smithsonian Institution. ISBN-10: 0871569752  ISBN-13: 978-0871569752

  • Butterfly Gardens  (Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guide). ISBN-10:0945352883  ISBN-13: 978-0945352884


Listed below are the common butterflies seen in Western Los Angeles County gardens with their adult and larval food sources.  All plants listed can be grown successfully in the home garden.

Common Garden Butterflies of the South Bay
 and Their Best Food Plants

Months fly*
Nectar (Adult) Food Plants
Larval (Caterpillar) Food Plants
Anise Swallowtail
Papilio zelicaon
Holly-leaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)
Spring Gold (Lomatium utriculatum)
Water Parsley  (Oenanthe sarmentosa)         
Non-native Sweet Fennel & Citrus
Western Tiger Swallowtail
Papilio rutulus
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
CA Sycamore (Platanus racemosa)
Willows (Salix species)
Cottonwoods (Populus balsamifera & fremontii)
Giant Swallowtail
Papilio cresphontes
Many native & non-native flowering plants
Non-native citrus
Cabbage White**
Pieris rapae
Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Sand Asters (Corethrogyne filaginifolia)
Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum)
Tansy Mustard (Descurania pinnata)
Peppergrass (Lepidium species)

Non-native garden vegetables--cabbage, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, radish; other -- nasturtium and mustard (Brassica sp.).
Common Checkered White
Pontia (Pieris) protodice
Many native and non-native species in Sunflower (Asteraceae), Mustard (Brassicaceae), Pea (Fabaceae)  and other families.
See Cabbage White
Orange Sulphur
Eurema nicippe
Many flowering species
Deervetch (Lotus scoparius)
Non-native Cassias/ Sennas
Cloudless Sulphur
Phoebis sennae marcellina
Non-native red-flowering geraniums
Non-native Cassias
Non-native Canary Bird Bush (Crotalaria agatiflora)
Gray (Common) Hairstreak
Strymon melinus
Milkweeds (Asclepias eriocarpa & fascicularis)
Deervetch (Lotus scoparius)

False Indigo (Amorpha species)
Buckwheats (Eriogonum species)
Deervetch (Lotus scoparius)
Lupines (Lupinus species)
Western Pygmy Blue
Brephidium exilis
Buckwheats (Eriogonum species)

Saltbushes (Atriplex species) Goosefeet (Chenopodeum species)

Marine Blue
Leptotes marina
Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Buckwheats (Eriogonum species)
Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum)
Deervetch (Lotus scoparius)

False indigo (Amorpha)
Rattlepod (Astragalus trichopodus)
Milkvetches (Astragalus species)
Buckwheats (Eriogonum species)
Wild Sweet Pea (Lathyrus vestitus)
Lotus/Brooms (Lotus species)
Lupines (Lupinus species)
Clovers (Trifolium species)

Non-native Cape Plubago (Plumbago auriculata), Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)

Acmon Blue
Prebijus (Icaricia) acmon
Milkweeds (Asclepias eriocarpa & fascicularis)
Douglas’ Baccharis (Baccharis douglasii)
Buckwheats (Eriogonum species)
Deervetch (Lotus scoparius)

Vetches (Astragalus species)
Ashy-leaf Buckwheat (Eriogonum cinereum)
California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)
Other Buckwheats (Eriogonum spp)
Deervetch (Lotus scoparius)
Other Lotus/Brooms (Lotus species)
Lupines (Lupinus species)
Clovers (Trifolium species)
Mormon & Fatal (Dusky) Metalmarks
Apodemia mormo & Calephelis nemesis
Buckwheats (Eriogonum species)

Mulefat (Baccharis salicifolia)
California Bush Sunflower (Encelia californica)
California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)
Gulf Fritillary**
Agraulis vanillae
Seaside heliotrope (Heliotropium curassavicum)
Johnny Jump-up (Viola pedunculata)

Non-native Passionflower (Passiflora caerulea)
Mourning Cloak
Nymphalis antiopa
Milkweeds (Asclepias eriocarpa & fascicularis)
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
Willows (Salix exigua, laevigata & lasiolepis)
Cottonwoods (Populus balsamifera & fremontii)
Painted Lady
Cynthia (Vanessa) cardui
Cobwebby Thistle (Cirsium occidentale)

Menzie’s Fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii)
Cobwebby Thistle (Cirsium occidentale)
Broad Leafed Lupine (Lupinus latifolius)
Bush Lupine (Lupinus longiflorus)
Arroyo Lupine (Lupinus succulentus)
Checkerspot (Sidalcea malvaeflora)
Hoary Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Non-native Baby's Tears (Soleirolia soleirolii)
American Lady (Painted Beauty)
Vanessa virginiensis
Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Milkweeds (Asclepias eriocarpa & fascicularis)
Douglas’ Baccharis (Baccharis douglasii)
Sand Asters (Corethrogyne filaginifolia)
Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum)
Sagebrush (Artemisia species)
Bedstraws (Gallium species)
Marsh Everlasting (Gnaphalium palustre)
Two-tone Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium biolettii)
California Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum)
Cotton-batting Plant (Pseudognaphalium stramineum)
West Coast Lady
Cynthia (Vanessa) annabella
Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Milkweeds (Asclepias eriocarpa & fascicularis)
Sand Asters (Corethrogyne filaginifolia)
Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum)
Island Bush Mallows (Malacothamnus species)
Checkerspot (Sidalcea malvaeflora)
Hoary Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Non-native Baby's Tears (Soleirolia soleirolii)
Common Buckeye
Precis (Junonia) coenia
Douglas’ Baccharis (Baccharis douglasii)
Bush Monkeyflowers (Diplacus species)
Sticky Monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus)
Chaparral Bush Monkey Flower (Diplacus linearis)
Creek Monkey Flower (Mimulus  guttatus)
Other Monkeyflowers (Mimulus species)
Plantains (Plantago species)

Non-native garden snapdragon (Antirrhinum sp.)
Red Admiral
Vanessa atalanta
Fermenting fruits, bird droppings, and sap from trees.
Nectar from Asteraceae spp, milkweed , alfalfa, more.
Hoary Nettle (Urtica dioica holosericea)

Non-native Baby's Tears (Soleirolia soleirolii)
Danaus plexippus
Milkweeds (Asclepias eriocarpa & fascicularis)
Red Thistle (Cirsium occidentale)
Blue Dicks/Wild Hyacinth (Dichelostemma capitatum)
Milkweeds (Asclepias eriocarpa, fascicularis and speciosa)
Funereal Duskywing
Erynnis funeralis
Buckwheats (Eriogonum species)
Black Sage (Salvia mellifera)
Deervetch (Lotus scoparius)
Sunflower family (Asteraceae)
Deervetch (Lotus scoparius)
Vetches (Vicia species)

Non-native Alfalfa (Medicago sativa).
Western Checkered Skipper
Pyrgus albescens (Pyrgus communis)
Many species of flowering plants
Island Bush Mallows (Malacothamnus species)
Checkerspot (Sidalcea malvaeflora)
Alkali Mallow (Malvella leprosa)
Northern White-Skipper
Heliopetes ericetorum
Many species of flowering plants
Island Bush Mallows (Malacothamnus species)
Checkerspot (Sidalcea malvaeflora)
Desert Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
Sandhill Skipper
Polites sabuleti
Seaside heliotrope (Heliotropium curassavicum)
Grasses, particularly Saltgrass (Distichlis spicata);  
Atalopedes campestris
Milkweeds  (Asclepias spp.)
Clovers (Trifolium spp.)

Many common non-native garden flowers
Grasses : Bromes (Bromus species); Saltgrass (Distichlis spicata); Barleys (Hordeum species);  Melic Grass (Melica imperfecta); Deergrass (Muhlenbergia species); Needlegrasses (Nasella species); Sedges (Carex species);

Non-native lawn grasses

Eufala Skipper
Lerodea eufala
Many native and non-native flowers including many in Sunflower (Asteraceae) family,
See Sachem
Umber Skipper
Paratrytone (Poanes) melane
Common Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Sand Asters (Corethrogyne filaginifolia)
Wild Hyacinth (Dichelostemma capitatum)
Buckwheats (Eriogonum species)
Golden Yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum)
Seaside heliotrope (Heliotropium curassavicum)
Deervetch (Lotus scoparius)
See Sachem
Fiery Skipper
Hylephila phyleus
See Umber skipper
See Sachem

*months that adult butterflies have been sighted in Western L.A. County
** not native to Western L.A. County