Butterflies are like flowers of the air. To make your garden inviting to them means adding a certain magic to your garden. A garden with butterflies, like one with lizards, birds, earthworms and other wildlife, is a healthy, balanced and productive place; a living, breathing, moving sanctuary of life. Without gardeners and their gardens, many butterflies would disappear from our environment.
For many years, before horticulture enveloped my life, I was a serious lepidopterist. I studied butterflies; particularly their life cycles, behavior, ecology and distribution. During hundreds of trips through California’s foothills, deserts, mountains and gardens I amassed a great amount of information about our local winged fauna. Much of my work was ultimately published in the book The Butterflies of Orange County, California. Butterflies have led me to the Alaskan tundra and the Florida everglades, but butterflies have always been as near as my own garden.
Because, by design, butterflies are flyers it is not possible to create a permanent home for them in a garden, only a way-station where they may stop by to refresh themselves during their journey. But, for most gardeners, convincing butterflies to spend time in and around your garden is simple; thereby contributing to their conservation.
Orange County is host to just over 100 species of butterflies. Many, however, are restricted to wild areas of the county and are seldom, if ever, seen in gardens. Fortunately, like plants, many large and showy butterflies can be cultivated in a well-planned butterfly garden.
In the communities of Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Corona del Mar and Newport Coast at least a dozen different butterflies may be enticed into your garden. From large to small our most common garden butterflies include the Western Tiger Swallowtail, Anise Swallowtail, Monarch, Mourning Cloak, Gulf Fritillary, Cloudless Sulfur, Painted Lady, West Coast Lady, Red Admiral, Cabbage White, Gray Hairstreak, Marine Blue and Fiery Skipper.
Butterflies are attracted to a garden for two reasons; nectar producing flowers or larval foodplants. Unfortunately, beginning butterfly gardeners focus all their attention on flowers and often forget about foodplants for the larvae or caterpillars. The most effective butterfly gardens combine specific nectar-producing flowers with other plants upon which adult butterflies lay eggs and larvae feed.
While adult butterflies may sip the nectar from several different flowers they will only lay their eggs on very specific plants, often only one or two species. The foodplant selectivity of each butterfly species is perhaps the most important knowledge a butterfly gardener can possess. Since a butterfly only feeds on the leaves of a specific plant, if this plant is absent from a garden the butterfly will, at best, be a transient visitor. Add the right foodplant in a garden and, like magic, the butterfly appears.
Everyone enjoys flowers, so let’s start our butterfly garden with flowering plants. There are dozens of possible flowers that have just the right structure for a butterflies specialized mouthparts. Remember, no matter how colorful many flowers may be to us, a great deal of them will not attract butterflies. The flowers may not contain adequate nectar or their flower parts may not be organized correctly for the butterfly pollination. Get some expert advice and don’t rely much on nationally written articles and books. Depend upon local advice and choose the appropriate plants for your area. At Rogers Gardens we have assembled an extensive list of plants that are almost guaranteed to be butterfly magnets.
On the top of my list of butterfly attracting plants would be Starflower (Pentas lanceolata), Lantana (Lantana camara), and Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Brightly colored Pentas are an especially attractive nectar source for many backyard butterflies. Garden varieties of Milkweed, with bright orange and red flowers, will almost always attract Monarch butterflies and serve as their larval foodplant.
Smaller perennials for placement in the front of borders and in pots include Yarrow (Achillea), Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Verbena, Zinnia, and Jupiter’s Beard (Centranthus ruber).
Larger shrubs may be used along foundations and fences and some will draw waves of nectar feeding butterflies. Among the best are Royal Cape Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata ‘Royal Cape’) and Butterfly Bush (Buddleja). Plumbago will attract large butterflies like the Western Tiger Swallowtail as well as small ones like the beautiful Marine Blue, which uses it as both a nectar source and larval foodplant. Buddleja’s are famous butterfly garden plants and are especially attractive to mid-sized species like the orange and black West Coast Lady and similar Painted Lady butterflies.
Probably the easiest butterfly to bring into a local garden is the bright, tropical-appearing Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae incarnata). This is one of the most brilliant of all California butterflies; a bright orange species with black accents and metallic silver spots on its underwings. The sole foodplant of the Gulf Fritillary is Passion Vine (Passiflora sp.). Since Passion Vines are not native to Orange County and are exclusively garden plants, Gulf Fritillaries are a recent addition to our butterfly fauna.
The easiest way for a novice butterfly gardener to attract beautiful butterflies to a garden is to plant a single passion vine, a few Milkweeds and either a Royal Cape Plumbago or a Buddleja. With only these three or four colorful additions you are likely to increase the butterfly population of your garden several times.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar