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Butterfly gardening; with the right plants and conditions, you can make your garden inviting to butterflies.

Butterfly gardening Artists study the intricacies of their form; scientists marvel at the intricacies of their development. And gardeners welcome these colorful, fluttery visitors any time, just for their beauty.

It's surprisingly easy to garden for butterflies. You can attract them to a tiny plot with only a few nectar flowers, or plan a larger garden with both nectar plants for adult butterflies and food plants to nourish caterpillars.

Start by supplying just a few of the right plants and conditions; a lot of new planting isn't necessary. You may already have a butterfly plant or two, and you can add more over time.

A butterfly garden is mostly sunny and wind sheltered. It isn't necessarily manicured, but it does have plenty of flowers, some moist or damp areas, and maybe a rocky area. The watercolor on page 95 shows a butterfly-attracting habitat. Or set out a butterfly garden in a single pot.

There are plants that butterflies crave, and many that they like. Eleven of the first kind are shown and described on the following pages. In general, perennials are more useful than annuals, and natives are preferable to exotics.

General planning for a butterfly garden

As you design you butterfly garden, aim for an abundance of nectar-rich flowers that bloom over a long period. Try to stagger bloom season so that some flowers are in bloom all the time.

It's useful to think of a butterfly garden in levels of plant height. Place taller, longer-lived shrubs or small trees, such as abelia, buddleia, and ceanothus, in the background, providing a windscreen as well as nectar and food. The intermediate zone is the visual focal point, the best place to put colorful perennials and annuals. In the front, plant the lowest-growing elements: blue salvia, lavender, and marigold, for example.

Where you locate your butterfly-attracting plants can make a difference. Most butterflies are active between 11 A.M. and 3 P.M. If the plant is shaded at that time, few if any butterflies will visit it, no matter how attractive it may otherwise be.

If you want your garden to be able to support butterflies, be wary of pesticides. If you use them at all, direct them carefully: never broadcast spray. Also, that trusted ally of organic gardeners. Bacillus thuringiensis, is deadly to butterfly caterpillars.

Encouraging butterflies could be a good neighborhood or community project. If you live where common areas are maintained by a homeowners' association, ask whether butterfly food plants might be included in the plantings. These and similar heavily vegetated buffer zones are very important to butterflies as well as other wildlife.

What to plant for adult butterflies

Old-fashioned flowers that have retained their scent and nectar are, as a group, the best. Hybrids with doubled or otherwise showy flowers often fail, either because the nectar has been bred out of them or because the butterflies just can't manage to reach inside to get it.

Flower shape is more important than color. Tubular and upright blooms, such as those of lantana or dandelion, are best. On these, the butterfly can comfortably sit and sip. Hanging flowers, even if nectar rich, are less successful. Yellow and red are favored colors, but most butterflies will move toward any bright color in bright sun. They rarely drink from any flower growing in shade or wind, and they prefer flowers with a distinct scent.

Choose flowers that are common in your locale--check with a museum of natural history or with a nearby university's entomology department.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) is a long-lived, semievergreen or deciduous 6- to 10-foot-high shrub. It is hardy throughout the West, except in the medium and high deserts of Arizona. Cut it back in fall or winter to about 3 feet; it will come back fast in spring, and bloom again by June. Several colors are available, but butterflies seem to prefer pink.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is the most restrainable and garden-worthy of the many milkweeds. (All species of milkweed are used by monarch butterflies.) A native of North America, it grows well throughout the West but dies back each winter. Bright orange flowers that appeal to many kinds of butterflies bloom in midsummer; monarch caterpillars usually appear earlier to feed on the plant's young leaves.

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is a California native, hardy in Sunset zones 8, 9, and 14 through 24. Tiny flowers appear May to October and provide plenty of nectar. Caterpillars and adults of the Mormon metalmark and the square-spotted blue depend on buckwheat; many others drink nectar from it.

Cosmos is a summer annual you can easily start from seed. In fact, once it's started, it will likely come back every spring on its own. Cosmos is an old-fashioned daisy that grows on lanky stems to about 3 feet (sometimes quite a bit more). Its flowers attract a wide variety of butterflies.

Lantana (L. camara, L. montevidensis, and hybrids) has small, upright flowers that are perfect for butterflies. Monarchs, swallowtails, and fiery skippers (among many others) can land and drink easily; orange and red are preferred colors. You can grow lantana in most of the West (zones 12, 13, and 15 through 24), but it migh freeze back some winters. In colder areas, it's an excellent container plant; move it to a protected spot during winter.

Shasta daisy (Chrysanthemum maximum) is a long-lived garden perennial that makes white daisy flowers. The most common, single-flowered kind is best for butterflies. It grows 2 to 4 feet tall.

Zinnias are another old-fashioned summer daisy. They're easty to start from seed, requiring only full sun and a warm summer. They are favored by sulfurs, skippers, and swallowtails.

What to plant for caterpillars (larvae)

If you want to observe all stages of a butterfly's life, you'll need some plants that support the larvae. It's on these plants thae eggs are laid, and on them the emerging larvae feed.

The idea caterpillar plant is sun loving, easty to grow -- and low, so you can watch caterpillars develop.

Nectar plants may attract a variety of butterfly adults, but larvae plants usually have much more specific appeal. While some larvae, such as those of the painted lady, can consume a broad range of plants, most limit their diets to one family of plants, or even one specific plant. Gulf fritillary feed only on passion vines, and monarchs sonly to milkweed.

The plants listed here are widely available. They can help you attract female butterflies to lay their eggs, and they might let you see more types of butterfly you'd miss otherwise.

Butterfly weed and other milkweeds are the preferred food to monarch butterflies. See the descriptions on facing page and the photograph on page 93.

Passion vine (Passiflora) is to gulf fritillary butterflies what milkweed is to monarchs: the caterpillars won't feed on anything else. Just about any species will do, but the pritier P. Caerulea and more cold-hardl P. incarnata are favorites.

California Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia california) is a native vine and the food plant of the coal black pipe-vine swallowtail. It grows in zones 7, 8, 9, and 14 through 24. With help, it can build 10 to 16 feet or more over an arbor, or into a tree. It needs partial shade. Drought tolerance is excellent, through growth is better with summer water.

Senna (Cassia didymobotrya, C. armata) is the favorite caterpillar food of the cloudless sulfur, a medium-to-large canary yellow butterfly that used to be common in Southern California. Senna is a perennial shrub that grows well in zones 13, 17, 22, 23, and 24. Leaves are green on top, fuzzy white below. Height can reach 8 feet, so give it some room.

Deep yellow flowers (the same shade as the butterfly) appear in winter and early spring; prune hard after flowering. Native to Mexico, it is drought resistant and combines well with other native and drought-tolerant plants.

For more information

If you want to learn more about butterflies and butterfly gardening, write to the Xerces Society, 10 S.W. Ash St., Portland 97204. The newsletter Danus is specific to monarch butterflies; write to Walter Sakai, Life Sciences Dept., Santa Monica City College, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, Calif. 90405. A useful reference is A Field Guide to Western Butterflies, by Tilden and Smith (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1986; $12.95).
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Date:Jun 1, 1991
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