Butterflies … a ‘new’ attraction

Some gardeners have ripped out plants they like and replaced them with plants that these delicate insects need.
Emily Green
Los Angeles Times (also in the Bremerton Washington Sun and the Hartford CT Courant)
August 9, 2003

LOS ANGELES — Summer begins with the appearance of the butterflies. The weather warms and suddenly there they are, swirling past, on their way to court, mate and frolic.

For the most enraptured gardeners, the spectacle is so thrilling that they’ve ripped out plants that they like and re-landscaped with plants that butterflies need. Where once they fought caterpillars with insecticides and thistles with weed killers, now they coddle worms and pamper weeds in an effort to nurture the splendid winged adults.

They are part of a growing breed: butterfly gardeners. For them, butterflies are more than an air show. They are a measure of the most profound seasonal tempos. No animal’s survival and habits are more directly bound up with the life of plants.

As with so many horticultural trends, butterfly gardening came out of England. It first took hold here in the early 1970s, led by the Xerces Society and the Sierra Club, says Julian Donahue, assistant curator emeritus of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and for 23 years the man in charge of the moth and butterfly collection. By 1976, Donahue was publishing articles in botanical journals urging gardeners to create habitats.

Four years ago, these morphed into a Natural History Museum booklet, “Butterfly Gardening in Southern California” and now is the starter book for beginners. Donahue meets for an interview on a chilly, gray day that, as the calendar has it, is the first official day of summer. He expects a good show of butterflies this year, but so far, they are nowhere to be seen.

“Butterflies are coldblooded. They need heat to fly,” he says.

So, we gather in the butterfly house of the museum. As he reaches for a monarch, gently gripping it by its body so it doesn’t fly away (don’t try this at home), an audience of children gather around him. They can smell a good teacher. Plus, he has what seem godlike privileges: He’s the only person who the museum staff allows to handle the insects.

“The original butterfly gardens only had nectar plants,” he says. “These are great for butterflies. But then people realized that butterflies don’t materialize out of thin air. You really have to have what the butterfly caterpillars eat.”

To know what to plant, it helps to understand the life cycle of butterflies, he says. They are first deposited onto plants as eggs, out of which hatch tiny caterpillars. The first thing an emerging caterpillar eats is its shell. It then proceeds to eat 20 times its body weight in leaves. These little “self-stuffing sausages” will shed their casings five times before it’s time to transform yet again, into pupa.

Pupa are intermediate beings, not caterpillars, not butterflies, but tightly packaged gobs of protoplasm called chrysalids. These can dangle from a plant or the eave of a house, or nestle among leaves and grass. Only the sharp eyes of entomologists, kids and predators can usually spot them: 150 million years of evolution has equipped them to look almost exactly like dead leaves. Inside, winged butterflies will be forming.

Know your butterflies
Here’s how to identify several species of butterflies, along with some menu suggestions for sustaining their often-neglected caterpillars.

Buckeye: Native across southern United States, but thought of as a tropical butterfly. Series of three large spots on a brown back with smart red details. Territorial and known to chase off intruders by furiously beating its wings. Caterpillar plants include snapdragons, monkey flower and lawn weed plantains.

Cabbage white: European. White with black dots. Most common garden butterfly. Caterpillars feed on members of the mustard family, including broccoli, cabbage and lettuce.

Fiery skipper: West Indies, southern U.S. Orange-brown, small, punky butterfly often mistaken for a moth. Caterpillars feed on Bermuda grass and crab grass.

Gulf fritillary: Mexico, southern U.S. Orange back and dramatic brown underwing with orange streaking and silvery white spots, like a good Marimekko print. Caterpillars need five-leafed passion vines. Adults drink lantana nectar.

Lorquin’s admiral: California. Brown with orange wing tips and white bands, like a chieftain’s head-dress. Found around streams. Caterpillar plants include wild cherry, willows, poplar and fruit trees. Nectar plants include privet hedges.

Monarch: California. Same as the eastern monarch, except they commute from the California coast every February to California’s Sierra Nevada and Nevada’s Great Basin, then back to the coast in October, instead of from Mexico to Canada. Orange with black window-pane edging.

Mourning cloak: California. Large brown butterfly with luscious yellow fringe and blue dotting. Caterpillar plants include willow, elm, hackberry and oaks. Butterflies become many months old and are so territorial that lepidopterist Charles Hogue recorded them diving at pigeons. Winter dormancy so light they emerge for sips of nectar now and then.

Painted lady: California. Orange splotches on black with white spots near the tip of the wings. Weak migrations north most years. Explosive, huge migrations north in El Nino years. Wide range of host plants, including thistles for caterpillars, daisies for adults.

Marine blue: California. Small, light blue back, gray zebra-patterned underwings. Caterpillars like sweet pea, wisteria and “Cape Plumbago.”

Swallowtail, anise: California. Large, black and yellow striped, butterfly. Caterpillars feed on citrus, parsley, dill, carrots and fennel.

Swallowtail, Western Tiger: California. Less common than conspicuous where they occur. Magnificent black and yellow stripes; males like to patrol treetops and hilltops. Caterpillars like Western sycamore, cottonwood, willows, wild cherry and ash.

West Coast lady: California. Orange and black. Almost identical to painted ladies, but for an orange bar near the tip of the wing. Migrates north periodically. Caterpillars on mallows; adults on wide range of nectar plants.

– Emily Green, Los Angeles Times


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