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Beckoning Butteflies

If you love butterflies but are not an avid gardener, it's a match made in butterfly heaven, because an untamed home garden becomes more like a natural habitat. In the wild butterflies flit and flutter freely in meadows, where things are left alone to do what they do naturally. 


In fact, extreme butterfly gardeners allow their home turf to become true ecosystems and are willing to tolerate a bit of a mess. These butterfly addicts leave their rakes in the garage and allow fallen leaves to become nesting ground for butterfly larvae. 


Fertilizers, pesticides, mulches and composts are "no no's" in a butterfly's habitat. This slightly unkempt and chemical free environment keeps our winged friends happy and more importantly, alive. 


Most of us already have some semblance of an organized garden, so leaving the entire backyard to "do it's own thing" probably isn't realistic. 


"If you have just a little part of your garden that is a bit jungle-like or wild you'll get some butterflies. I have a corner where common fennel grows vigorously. The lovely swallowtail butterflies often visit because it is a sheltered and safe area of the garden," said Susie Mader, a Palo Alto landscape designer and master gardener. 


If one uncultivated corner is not part of your plot, a more manicured landscape can easily become host to butterflies. "Just make sure to keep the following four elements in mind: plant diversity, a chemical free environment, sunshine and a mud puddle with a bit of salt," advised Mader.

Plant Diversity

Luckily, many Northern California gardens already beckon adult butterflies. That's because butterflies are attracted to many California native plants and common annuals that are abundant in the Bay Area. Familiar butterfly bush, cosmos, ceanothus, California poppies, California buckeye trees, day lilies, lavender, lilacs, lupine, mint, salvia, violas, yarrow and zinnias, to name just a few, all allure butterflies. (For additional varieties see Nectar Plants for Northern California Adult Butterflies.) 


Butterflies are particularly drawn to their favorite varieties for various reasons. The blooms of day lilies, yarrow and zinnia offer broad flowers as airports. Butterflies can rest on each bloom while sipping the flowers' nectar. This is important to butterflies because unlike many birds, butterflies cannot hover. 


Line flowers with multiple tiny blossoms on a single stem, such as lupine, butterfly bush and salvia, allow butterflies to investigate each miniature blossom without moving. 


Not surprisingly, butterflies are also drawn to fragrance and color: lilacs; violets and lavender are such flowers. 


Diversity also means growing both tall and low growing plants as well as incorporating a nestled breeze-free zone. "Butterflies don't like to be blown around," said Mader. Just like people, butterflies need a sheltered, peaceful place to feed. Providing trees that give refuge from the wind allow these fluttering beauties to dine calmly and easily. "If you have a balcony or windy deck, you may want to install some kind of wind screen," she added. 


Butterflies are frequent visitors to "cottage gardens" that are traditionally designed with a bevy of diverse plantings. Cottage gardens generally offer high and low, flowering and non-flowering treats for our finicky friends. Quite the opposite menu is found in formal gardens with more limited plant selection. Butterflies less frequent what they might label mundane munchies. 


Individual butterfly species have an affinity for very specific plant varieties. Advanced butterfly gardeners cultivate these particular plant specimens to lure desired butterflies. However, Mader advised just the opposite for novice butterfly enthusiasts. "Plant varieties known to attract butterflies in general. That's simply the easiest way to get them to your garden, then see what shows up." 


"Actually, it may be most important to supply butterflies with plants they can lay their eggs (larvae) on. This is especially true in our area where nectar plants for adult butterflies are plentiful," said Mader. 


Two favorites and widely available larvae plants are butterfly bush and Centranthus ruber. These plants grow well together and are also draught tolerant. (See Larval Host Plants for Northern California Butterflies for additional nectar varieties.) Female butterflies select these and other larval varieties because they protect her eggs and are nutritious food for emerging caterpillars. 


Yes, caterpillars will eat your plants. Mader calms our squeamish nerves by explaining caterpillars don't do too much damage. Remember, caterpillars do metamorphosis into beautiful butterflies but only if they are provided with food and a chemical free environment.

Chemical-Free Enviornment

"Larvae become caterpillars which many people view as the enemy. Most gardeners don't quite make the connection between caterpillars and butterflies. They go around spraying toxic pesticides to get rid of them which is counter-productive," Mader stated. 


Adult butterflies can not tolerate pernicious substances either. Their colonies will quickly die off if fed meals of nectar that has been poisoned with noxious chemicals. 


My best,


"There's nothing more beautiful than watching a new butterfly dry off in the sun. They open and close their wings slowly," said Mader. 


Butterflies are cold bolded and solar powered. When basking in sunshine they are literally gathering energy. Full sun all day isn't necessary, but keep in mind, many plants butterflies cherish also like the sun. 


To watch a butterfly sun worshipping show, Mader suggested staging large rocks in a sunny spot. Near a mud puddle is ideal. Butterflies will gather in the morning sun for the ritual and then quench their thirst in the mud puddle.

Mud Puddle with Salt

"Butterflies can't deal with running water or big fountains, but instead prefer still water. In the wild they drink around mud puddles near manure," said Mader. A little dish filled with water, which over time turns muddy, is what these creatures want. Table salt sprinkled in the water gives them the minerals they require too. 


"You'll have lots of happy, healthy butterflies if you give them a place to lay their eggs, some sunshine and a safe butterfly diet of nectar, water and minerals, " said Mader.

Nectar Plants for Northern California Adult Butterflies

Many of these are California Natives and this list is just "the tip of the iceberg!" 

  • Butterfly Bush 

  • Blue Elderberry 

  • Bunchgrasses 

  • Coast Buckwheat 

  • Dune Buckwheat 

  • Native Buckwheats 

  • California Buckeye 

  • California Goldenrod 

  • California Milkweed 

  • California Poppies 

  • Ceanothus 

  • Chrysanthemum 

  • Cosmos 

  • Coyote Bush 

  • Coyote Mint 

  • Cream Bush 

  • Day Lilies 

  • Hollyhock 

  • Japanese Honeysuckle 

  • Lavender 

  • Lilacs 

  • Lupine 

  • Mint 

  • Native Plantain 

  • Nettles 

  • Owl's Clover 

  • Salvia 

  • Stonecrop 

  • Sun Flowers 

  • Verbena 

  • Violets 

  • Yarrow 

  • Zinnia

Larval Host Plants for Northern California Butterflies

These plants draw adult female butterflies to lay their eggs in the refuge of their foliage and flowers. There are many more larvae plants that host and feed eggs and caterpillars! 

  • Asters 

  • Butterfly Bush 

  • Centranthus ruber 

  • Ceanothus 

  • Clover 

  • Common Fennel 

  • Foxglove 

  • French Marigold 

  • Hibiscus 

  • Hollyhock 

  • Mallows 

  • Mustard 

  • Nasturtium 

  • Native Plantain 

  • Owl's Clover 

  • Passion Vine 

  • Penstemon 

  • Roses 

  • Snapdragons 

  • Strawberries 

  • Sunflowers 

  • Sweet Alyssum 

  • Thistle 

  • Wisteria

Life Cycle of a Butterfly

A butterfly begins life as an egg laid by a female on a host plant. Once the egg hatches the caterpillar nourishes itself on favorite plants. After approximately two to three weeks the caterpillar is ready to pupate. A silken case, a chrysalis, is now its home and in time the caterpillar transforms into a winged creature. 


Butterflies are very active and both male and female have distinct goals: to eat and mate. It's important for females to eat and store energy, which makes it possible to produce eggs. Therefore, they are constantly in search of nectar, water and salt. And, because butterflies are fussy eaters, specific plant varieties must be found. Males stay busy courting the females. Since butterflies are cold blooded, all this activity is done in the glory of sunshine. 


A toxic environment is a constant threat at all stages of a butterfly's life. In the larval stage, birds, reptiles and wasps are also predators. It's a wonder any of them survive.

Text Resources
  • Attracting Birds & Butterflies by Barbara Ellis (Houghton Mifflin, Publisher) 

  • The California Landscape Garden by Mark Francis and Andreas Reimann (University. of California Press) 

  • Gardening for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, Inc) 

  • Sunset Western Garden Book 

  • Local Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay Area (This laminated pamphlet can be purchased at local nurseries.)

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