From the Davis Enterprise, January 24, 2008
a boy asked me for advice on plants to attract butterflies.
got me ruminating about my own childhood, growing up with a somewhat fanatical
butterfly collector. Any interesting butterfly that drifted through our yard
was likely to find itself netted, labeled, and pressed in glass by my mother.
(Ruthless entomology apparently runs in my family. My great grandfather, author
of Manual of North American Diptera, would enliven his lectures by snatching flies from mid-air to
identify them, and then return to his prepared text.)
hopes that our contemporary youth, and you, have a more live and let live
attitude towards butterflies, I offer these suggestions.
should your garden be?
sunny location, sheltered from winds if possible. Being cold-blooded, they warm
up in the morning by basking. Light-colored rocks placed in areas with morning
sun may attract them. Water is not necessary, but males of some species
congregate around shallow puddles or damp sand or gravel. Some species are
attracted to smelly food sources: stale beer, bird feeders with cut-up fruit,
or even manure may draw them!
kind of flowers do they like?
fragrant flowers in shapes that they can get nectar from. They feed with a long
tongue (proboscis) which they use to reach the nectar far inside tubular
flowers. Plants that attract hummingbirds often attract butterflies.
will visit a plant longer if it has numerous tubular flowers in clusters and
they can alight on some larger petals. They have compound eyes and can see
color, but are near-sighted and respond best to large splashes of color. If you
have room, plant large blocks of flowers in the same color range. Annuals from
seed are an economical way to do this: a pack of Cosmos seed will plant 10-
20 feet, and bloom all summer.
colors do they like?
apparently doesn't attract them. Various species respond to the pink –
purple range, others like red, orange, and even some to white. "Nectar guides"
in the form of visually contrasting colors on the petals will steer them
towards some flowers, but we humans often don't see those as they are in the
of types that bloom spring through fall. Include some shrubs, lots of
perennials, and big patches of seasonal annuals.
annual flowers for butterflies. All are easy to grow in full sun.
Plant from seed or
starts in late spring. Bloom all summer.
Plant from seed or
starts anytime from early spring to mid-summer.
Plant from seed
any season. Reseeds.
Plant in late
spring or summer. Loves heat! Profuse bloom until frost.
perennial flowers for butterflies.
Asters, Michaelmas Daisies (Aster)
Late summer, fall
bloom. Some are California natives. Many species of butterflies visit Asters.
Very early bloom
in winter and early spring. Pure white blossoms.
One of the best
for butterflies; mid-summer bloom. Many new varieties now available.
Easy, with a
profusion of golden blooms from spring through fall.
Very attractive to
butterflies. Plants tend to live 2 – 3 years, so replant new seedlings
Look for dwarf
varieties. Great mid to late-summer bloom.
– June, reseeds freely.
Lily of the
Very easy to grow,
blue or white flowers.
Often planted as
food for Monarch caterpillars, but flowers attract many species of butterflies.
Long bloom season,
spring through fall. Tough, reliable.
(actually short-lived perennials) bloom in any season. Perennial carnation types
bloom April – June and have wonderfully fragrant flowers.
The big, pure
white daisy we all know. Blooms spring to mid-summer, often other times as
well. Spreads steadily. Will take some shade.
flowers all summer. Extremely heat tolerant.
shrubs that attract butterflies
Blooms off and on
spring, summer, fall. Pink forms also attract hummingbirds. Nice informal shrub
for sun or shade.
(Buddleia, esp. B. davidii.)
plant! Pink and purple varieties seem most effective. Varieties range from 6'
to 12'+. Amenable to occasional hard pruning (spring is best) to control size.
CA native shrub
for dry gardens. Winter berries are a nice bonus.
CA native shrub or
ground cover with flowers (not showy) that attract many small butterflies and
other beneficial insects. Tough, drought tolerant.
Blooms heavily from
April until frost, attract many types of butterflies as well as hummingbirds.
Bright orange, red, yellow, and blended forms available as shrubs. Ground cover
forms are purple, white, or yellow. Damaged by frost, but recovers.
attractive foliage. Dozens of varieties, varying in height, scent, and color
intensity. Drought tolerant. Bloom heavily in late spring and early summer,
often other times.
sweet-smelling lilac (S. vulgaris) is
very attractive to Swallowtail butterflies. Blooms here in April. Tolerates
drought; prefers full sun.
Shrubs to 6' or
more with a long spring and summer bloom season. Water deeply, infrequently to
avoid iron chlorosis. Prune infrequently to maximize bloom, but can be cut back
severely on occasion for size control.
Heavy winter and
spring bloom of blue-violet flowers on this traditional cooking herb, with
scattered flowers nearly any time. Very tolerant of drought.
Big CA native
shrub. Flowers aren't showy, but they attract small butterflies. Bright red
other) Privets (Ligustrum)
Ugh. The flowers
smell weird and lots of people are allergic to them. Oddly, some butterflies
like them. Adaptable, often pruned.
Buckwheats, St. Catherine's Lace (Eriogonum)
Many CA native
species. Grey foliage, interesting white, yellow, or brownish-pink flowers in
spring. Prefers drought.
weeds attract butterflies!
Flowers are a
source of nectar in winter. Seeds are a source of new dandelions, in your lawn
and everywhere nearby as they are wind borne.
attract butterflies and many beneficial insects. But many thistles are very
Providing food for larva may be less effective, but can be worth a
try. Milkweed (Asclepias) is often planted for Monarch caterpillars, and also attracts
many adult butterflies. From my own experience, if you plant parsley or fennel
you are may see the brightly-striped caterpillars of the Anise
swallowtail at some point. It can be a little disconcerting how much they eat!
Caterpillars have huge appetites. Fortunately, most are highly selective about their
diet, eating only the intended plants. But plant plenty if you*re going to
excellent web resources:
Shapiro's Butterfly Site (Dr. Art Shapiro is professor of Evolution and Ecology
at UC Davis): http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/
Powell's Butterfly Site has great pictures and is easy to navigate: http://www.vireos.com/butterflies.html
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
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