The Loma Prietan - July/August 2008

Gardening Green

Butterfly Gardening

story and photo by Arvind Kumar

A Painted Lady butterfly appreciates the nectar of yarrow.
A Painted Lady butterfly appreciates the nectar of yarrow.

Since the time of ancient Egypt, humans have been fascinated by butterflies. These colorful creatures have inspired artists and writers from cultures as diverse as Japan, India, and Greece. Their unique lifecycle and magical metamorphosis touches something deep within us, as evidenced by the ancient Greek word for butterfly: "psyche" or soul.

In the environment, butterflies play an important role as pollinators. When present in the garden, they are indicators of a healthy ecosystem.

The over-emphasis on aesthetics has made us lose sight of a vital function of our gardens: as habitat for creatures such as butterflies.

Four Stages of Life

A butterfly goes through four stages in life, each very different from the others. The adult butterfly lays its eggs on specific plants, called larval host plants. The eggs hatch into caterpillars, which then feed on the leaves of the host plant. Some caterpillars become unpalatable to predators due to chemicals imbibed from the host plant. The caterpillar then pupates into a chrysalis, dormant on the outside, undergoing rapid transformation inside. Eventually the butterfly emerges, the wings drying out for an hour or so before it is ready for flight.

Caterpillars have powerful mandibles which help them to devour leaves. As butterflies, they lose their jaws and are limited to consuming nectar with their proboscis.

Be a Butterfly Magnet

In choosing plants for the garden, we should evaluate their larval host potential or nectar potential. If you are committed to attracting butterflies to your garden, here are some simple dos and don'ts.

DO plant a variety of host plants such as milkweeds, mallows, checkerbloom, and willows (see sidebar.) In general, native plants are best for native butterflies. Native milkweeds are butterfly magnets, supporting caterpillars as well as butterflies. The pipevine swallowtail lays its eggs only on the California pipevine.

DO plant a variety of nectar plants that bloom at different times of the year. Yarrow, asters, and buckwheats are particularly effective, easy to grow, and well suited for small gardens. Locate them next to the host plants.

DO provide sunny, sheltered areas in the garden as well as part-shade areas. Butterflies need sun for feeding and shade for resting.

DO tolerate some leaf "damage" from caterpillars. A garden where no leaf is sampled or chewed upon is a garden that has no capacity to support life.

DO allow some leaf litter in the garden. It provides sheltered spots for chrysalises to form.

DO provide a source of water. Butterflies prefer muddy spots that offer both moisture and mineral nutrients. The shallow edge of a pond is perfect.

DO attend meetings of the California Native Plant Society ( to learn about suitable native plants, where to get them, and how to grow them.

DON'T use chemicals in the garden as pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Use organic and natural products such as neem oil, woodchip mulch, and homemade compost. Take classes offered by Master Gardeners in environmentally friendly gardening practices.

By following these simple steps, you can create butterfly habitat in which both adults and larvae—and your own psyche—will find sustenance.

Sierra Club life member and California Native Plant Society director Arvind Kumar grows native plants in his Evergreen garden. He can be reached at