Is there anything more delightful than butterflies in the garden? The flutter of those tiny painted wings brings joy and inspiration, and the butterflies help the gardener by pollinating and providing food for birds and other wildlife.
Butterflies (Papilionoidea) belong to an evolutionarily related group of flying insects called Lepidoptera, which includes moths. Butterflies and moths share many characteristics, but butterflies are usually colorful and are active during the day, while moths are usually drab and are active primarily at night. There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world, and about 575 species that occur regularly in the continental U.S. Many butterfly species migrate, spending the cold winter months in Mexico and then moving north during the warmer months of the year. For most species these northward dispersals are gradual, but, in especially good years, one can see Painted Ladies, Cloudless Sulphurs or Clouded Skippers streaming northward along migratory routes.
Most adult butterflies sustain themselves by drinking nectar from flowers through their tongues, which function much like straws. Butterfly caterpillars almost all eat plant matter, mainly the leaves, but some eat seeds, seedpods, or flowers. Most species of caterpillars will eat only a small group of related plant species – for example, Pearl Crescent caterpillars only feed on asters and hence the butterfly cannot reproduce unless asters are present in the garden.
Many of my clients have asked how they can attract more butterflies to their gardens. The number one rule is: DON’T USE PESTICIDES. This may seem obvious, but it is worth stating: butterflies are insects, and insecticides will kill them.
The second most important thing to do if you want to attract butterflies is to provide the plants they need to survive. As mentioned above, butterflies need both nectar plants for the adults, and larval host plants for the caterpillars. Establishing a nectar buffet is easier, because there are many plants that can provide nectar for butterfly enjoyment. Some plants are more bountiful in nectar, or the access to the nectar is easier for the butterflies, so consider planting some of these butterfly favorites:
- Butterfly Bush (Buddleia) is appropriately named because it is extremely attractive to many species of butterflies.
- Red Valarian (Centranthus) is easy and drought resistant, and has a long bloom season.
- Milkweed/Bloodflower (Asclepias), beautiful short-lived perennials with red, orange, yellow blooms are a favorite of many species of butterfly. Added bonus: also a larval host – the Bloodflowers in my garden are covered with Monarch caterpillars by late in the season.
- California Aster (Aster chilensis) is pretty in a naturalistic landscape, and the flowers are good for cutting too.
- California Fuchsia (Epilobium Canum) is very drought tolerant and care free, and provides beautiful red/orange blooms summer through fall.
- Seaside Daisy (Erigeron) is long blooming and super easy, drought tolerant and the deer don’t like it, but the butterflies sure do.
- Honeysuckle (Lonicera) is a beautiful, easy care vine for fences or walls, a favorite of many butterfly species.
- Lupine (Lupinus) bears colorful blooms during summer, and is great for cottage gardens and perennial borders.
- Scarlet Monkey Flower (Mimulus cardinalis) offers bright scarlet blooms spring and summer.
- Penstemon comes in almost every color imaginable, is long blooming, is popular among Bay Area gardeners for it’s resistance to deer and drought, and is a favorite of local butterflies
- Sage (Salvia) – there are so many lovely varieties available and the butterflies seem to love them all.
There are many more nectar plants that attract butterflies – if you would like to peruse a full list check out Western Horticultural Society Butterfly List.
For a list of California butterflies, take a look at California Butterfly List.
The North American Butterfly Association has a great deal of good information on their website, including answers to frequently asked questions regarding butterflies.
And finally, the Hallberg Butterfly Garden is a wonderful 9-acre area in western Sonoma County where visitors can wander the paths and meadows, observing and learning about local butterflies and their habitats. The garden is open to visitors each summer, and seeks volunteer gardeners and docents throughout the year. See the website for more information.