Northern California is home to more than 130 butterfly species, several of which are endangered as of 2012, according to the “Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions.” Spectacular specimens include Bay checkerspot, mission blue butterfly, Myrtle’s silverspot, Sara orangetip, anise swallowtail and the monarch butterfly, among many others. A carefully planned and well-maintained butterfly garden can help bring the delicate, colorful insects right into your backyard.
Before picking plants for your butterfly garden, decide which butterflies you’re hoping to attract. While some butterflies are attracted to several types of plants, other species are much more selective. For example, the American painted lady enjoys a range of plants, from delicate white pearly everlasting to vibrant sunflowers, prickly purple thistles and bright yellow golden yarrow. The West Coast lady, on the other hand, prefers to feed on checkerblooms with small clusters of delicate pink flowers.
The North American Butterfly Association website provides a list of widely used flowers for Pacific coastal and inland butterfly gardens. If you’re looking to attract a variety of butterflies, choose flowers that attract multiple species. For example, you might include yerba santa, California buckeye, trumpet honeysuckle and butterfly bushes. Additional Bay Area flower recommendations include purple sage, pink or crimson Jupiter’s beard and asters in a variety of colors — although these types of flowers attract a more specific selection of species.
Although you might only be after the butterflies, your garden will also house caterpillars. Keeping your caterpillar population well ed and healthy helps you repopulate your butterfly population with little effort. Along with plants and flowers that attract butterflies, you’ll also want to plant flowers that feed caterpillars. Common plants for this purpose include globemallows, hollyhock and colorful asters. If you have a larger planting area, trees can provide plenty of food for caterpillars. Consider planting cottonwoods, willows or fruit trees that produce apples, cherries and plums.
Care and Maintenance
Most butterfly plants and flowers are relatively easy to grow and maintain. Plants that are kept hydrated and fresh are more attractive to butterflies, so pay attention to your watering schedule. Plant your flowers in a sunny area — the warm and bright environment is more attractive to butterflies, which enjoy basking in the sun. Protect your butterfly garden from the wind with a sturdy fence or line of trees. Dig a shallow hole in a shaded area of your garden and nestle a shallow dish — such as the top of a birdbath — into the hole. Fill the dish with moist soil or a shallow water puddle. Butterflies need frequent rest periods to cool down and rehydrate.
If possible, avoid using insecticides, pesticides or other harsh chemicals in your butterfly garden. These chemicals will kill not only garden pests but also your beautiful butterflies. The Morton Arboretum website recommends removing infected plants frequently to prevent pest accumulation. If you do use pest controls, opt for a butterfly-safe product.