Butterfly gardeners begin this way - they see a colorful butterfly in their garden and start paying attention. Once you begin observing, you notice more and more of these beautiful creatures and wonder, how can I see more kinds? Let’s fill the garden with them. I’m sure that’s how I began.
Everyone knows butterflies ‘drink’ nectar from flowers, but what kind of plants will attract them best? Is it possible in ‘deer country’ to plant the kind of plants that would fill your garden with these ‘living leaves?’ Yes, it is.
If you have allowed the existing native plants like manzanita, pine and deerbrush to stay in your garden or on your property, you have a huge start since these are the plants that blossom and provide nectar for Mountain Area native wildlife. Did you know even pine and oak bloom? Pines and oaks have tiny nondescript flowers to us, but these are wonderfully appealing to butterflies and local bees.
The queen of butterfly attractors, Buddleia, is called “butterfly bush” for good reason - it attracts butterflies of all kinds almost from the first day it blooms. It’s fun to plan an entire butterfly garden using tall, medium and low plants and the bonus is all these plants attract native bees and flower flies.
The additional plants I list here nurture the butterfly eggs, larvae and provide nectar butterflies need. They’re also deer resistant and thrive in our Mediterranean ‘dry summer’ climate. Local nurseries are cooperating by sourcing butterfly attracting plants and native plants to California including milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Try these tall plants when designing a butterfly garden bed: Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) and Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), medium-tall, Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberose), Red Hot Poker, (Kniphofia), New England aster (Aster novae-angiae), Bee Balm (Monarda) and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).
Medium height butterfly plants ideal for our foothills are Coreopsis verticillata (Tickseed), Blanket flower (Gaillardia), Hummingbird Mint (Agastache) and Sedum Stonecrop (Autumn Joy). All are deer resistant.
Low butterfly attractors are any variety of thyme, Scabiosa (Pin Cushion Flower) and low creeping Verbena (Verbena tenuisecta). Be sure to plant parsley because parsley provides a good home for the butterfly larvae and gives you even more butterflies. Amazingly, parsley is a perennial here in our area plus you can cook with it.
Some common California native plants that especially attract butterflies are manzanita, Chaparral Honeysuckle, Sulfur Flower, Silver Bush Lupine, Elegant Madia (Tarweed), Deer Grass and Hall’s Mule’s ears. Many of these grow along our roadsides and we get the benefits in our gardens.
Butterflies in our Sierra foothills include, Swallowtails, Buckeyes, Skippers and California Sisters and many more. If you’ve seen a butterfly in Central California that you’d like to identify, try Art Shaprio’s Butterfly Site, associated with UC Davis, or Calphotos website, another site you can browse to identify California butterflies.
Some gardeners provide a special butterfly watering place with mud and flat rocks where water from the hose or drip sprayers collects. This provides a landing pad for butterflies to sip a bit of water, and then sun themselves on the rocks. This month, watch for butterfly swarms near water sources on your property. It’s fun and fascinating to watch.
There are many kinds of themed gardens you can plant here in the foothills but one of the most enjoyable, and wise choices, is a butterfly garden. Plan your butterfly garden where it receives six or more hours of sun a day and don’t use pesticides where you want to nurture these winged ‘living flowers.’ Then they will come.