Friday, November 26, 2004

Habitat for Butterflies

Butterflies are far less commonly seen in local gardens these days than in decades past – in many neighborhoods they’re entirely absent! We even get reports of “butterfly gardens” sans butterflies!

Why? In technical biological terms: limiting factors!

Vast areas of our developed landscape are marked by a dearth of essential butterfly larval host plants -- the plants butterfly caterpillars feed upon! No caterpillar food = No caterpillars = No butterflies!

Thus the prime directive for our butterfly gardening success is nurture butterfly larval host plants!

It’s also true that many butterflies are pickier about preferred nectar plants than commonly estimated. Success as a butterfly gardener deep in most urbanized areas requires careful study, planning and execution. If there are no butterflies in your neighborhood now, filling your garden with them will be a challenging task, requiring research to guide your efforts. Butterflies are in need of gardeners inclined to research and experiment, because there’s still much we don’t know about how to best foster their existence among us. There remains much to learn about exactly which plants serve best as caterpillar hosts and nectar sources. In the pursuit of butterfly gardening, brains count more than brawn!

For those interested in butterfly gardening I commend the County Checklist section of the “Butterflies of North America” Web site as a gold mine of useful information – there you can learn what butterflies you have or may expect to attract and something about their limiting factors. Butterfly Gardening: Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden by the Xerces Society gives considerable guidance on exactly what larval host plants and nectar plants are known to be favorites of your target butterflies. Please realize, there is yet much to learn about these things! The Audubon Society Handbook for Butterfly Watchers, by Robert Michael Pyle, is helpful and entertaining

Weeds are an urban butterfly gardener’s best friend! Weedy neighborhoods produce butterflies because some weeds are butterfly caterpillar food. In affluent neighborhoods without weeds there often are few or no native or cultivated caterpillar food plants as well, and thus, no butterflies. Weedy areas nearby are a boon for the butterfly gardener! Laziness and a tolerance for untidiness are not required, but they are likely to be more helpful than hurtful to butterflies! To create a truly beautiful butterfly garden is a unique challenge for the aspiring wise and noble.

The most favorable place for an exciting butterfly garden is adjacent to a creek which retains natural vegetation. The caterpillars of some large and beautiful butterflies develop on willows, stinging nettles, yellow monkeyflower and other creekside plants. Some of the most highly favored nectar plants for adult butterflies, such as western goldenrod, common California aster, and salt heliotrope, grow along creeks.

Weeds that support butterfly caterpillars include bermudagrass, fennel, cheeseweeds, cudweeds, plantains and docks. Pellitory (Parietaria judaica) is a weed prevalent in San Francisco which feeds caterpillars of the red admiral, one of the city’s more attractive common butterflies.

Non-native butterflies supported by non-native garden plants include the cabbage white, which develops on nasturtiums and cabbage family plants, and the gulf fritillary, which develops on passion vines.

The ideal aspect for a butterfly garden is a sunny, sheltered, southeast facing “bay” bordered by woody plants and/or buildings. Near or at the top of a hill may be ideal since many butterflies engage in “hill-topping”! Most butterflies sun themselves on large rocks and like mud.

Some top native larval hosts are willows, angelicas, docks, plantains, monkeyflowers, tree mallow and narrowleaf milkweed. Top native nectar plants include California buckeye, blueblossum, gumplants, asters, cobweb thistle, salt heliotrope, globe gilia, fiddlenecks, frogfruit, flat-top buckwheat and broad-leaved buckwheat, coyote bush, coyote mint, Indian hemp, golden-fleece and goldenrods. “Exotic” nectar plants include butterfly bush, Mexican sunflower, Verbena bonariensis, red valerian and radishes.

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