How I managed to garden all these many years and not know the difference between host and nectar plants for butterflies is beyond me. Honestly? I’d never really thought about it, primarily because no one really brought it to my attention! It was only through my recent field trip to Hallberg Butterfly Gardens and the subsequent research that I did that it truly dawned on me that there was a very big difference. Did you know? Maybe you did. Maybe not. But here are some highlights from what I discovered.
Let’s start with the most extreme example I encountered, but I must forewarn you that I’m beginning to believe this is not as uncommon as one might think. The above photograph, taken just in front of Louise Hallberg’s home, where she has lived for the last 92 years, is of the pipevine, which really began her whole journey into the world of butterflies. Louise’s mother planted this pipevine, but so very long ago that in spite of being very slow growing, has, over the decades made its way throughout the gardens surrounding Louise’s home. The magical result? Pipevine swallowtail. Why? Not because butterflies are drawn to a flower. No. Butterflies are drawn to the leaf because that is where they need to lay their butterfly eggs. (Yes, did you ever even think of a butterfly egg? No, neither had I.) Because when those little eggs hatch (the ones not eaten by neighboring spiders, etc.) they are going to be hungry little baby caterpillars. And pipevine swallowtail caterpillars need to eat pipevine leaves for six weeks! Period. As in, that’s it. If they don’t have pipevine, they will not survive as a species. After they eat and eat and eat, each one creates a little chrysalis, hopefully in a safe place, where they will remain for nine months! True story. As most of you know the butterfly that emerges is apt to live a couple of weeks. Please let that sink in. Because we need to begin to exponentially let in those little details in order to begin to understand just how fragile the world of butterflies is. Yes, indeed. Very fragile, indeed.
It would seem, if my newfound knowledge and careful contemplation is correct, that gardeners tend to be told that in order to enjoy the beauty of butterflies we are to plant certain flowers. Butterfly bush comes to mind, right? Sure enough, I did that, and it worked. I just spied this beautiful Western tiger swallowtail on the butterfly bush I planted last year, and, boy, was I happy! It did rather break my heart to notice the big tear in one of her wings, however. Poor dear.
Western tiger swallowtail
This Western tiger swallowtail has come to my butterfly bush to drink nectar. This you most likely knew. This part we are routinely taught, most likely, my dears, because nurseries sell us these kinds of plants to “attract butterflies” and we are more than happy to oblige.
But what about the host plants? Uh, maybe not as pretty? But maybe so! Being in the butterfly meadows I took advantage of Louise’s vast knowledge and took fastidious notes, which I later returned and verified last weekend, taking Antonia along, who readily caught the Butterfly Bug and was soon on her knees with her camera!
A family from the East Bay joined us and Louise took us on her butterfly rounds, initiating our tour with a very special treat–releasing an anise swallowtail she had protected as a caterpillar in a butterfly cage, who had just recently opened her wings. Gorgeous creature!
The anise swallowtail lays eggs on fennel. Those of you in the right locale might want to consider including fennel in your gardens to help ensure the survival of the anise swallowtail. Louise says they are on the decline. She attributes the decline of butterflies to loss of habitat, global warming and pesticides. She knows there could be other factors, but in her 92 years of contemplating her property, that’s her best assessment, folks. I take her word.
Western tiger swallowtails and mourning cloak butterflies both like willow for laying their eggs. The red admiral prefers stinging nettle. The humble plantain is home to the eggs of the buckeye butterfly. West Coast lady also likes hollyhock. I was relieved to hear this, as hollyhock lives in my garden in abundance. My guilt subsided when I heard this, as I have been integrating how lopsided my support of butterflies has been over the years. I need to add native plants, after carefully researching which ones are needed by which butterflies. I must do my part.
Now. The other half of the equation is so much easier, and probably most of us have been supporting the nectaring needs of butterflies for a long long time. Louise says they do, indeed, favor the butterfly bush and the salvias.
hot lip sage
But here are others I found on her property you might want to consider including, if you have not already done so, and want to offer sweet food for butterflies who have emerged from their long journey of becoming.
Thistle is a plant that the California dogface likes to nectar on, so we are hoping the ones Louise released last week will find these plants, feel at home, overwinter, and establish themselves next spring. Oh, may it be so!
Here is what I’m hoping, dear readers. I’m hoping you will become inspired perhaps during the winter to make some time to discover what the native butterflies are in your locale, to find out what their host plants are, and to pick one or two, include these host plants in your garden and see if you can help ensure that your local butterflies get both the host plants they need for laying their eggs as well as the nectar plants I bet you have already established in your gardens. You might be surprised that one of the “weeds” you have been routinely pulling up is actually a host plant to some lovely butterfly, desperately needing it for her eggs. (Scary, huh?) Please do write to me and let me know. Please triple check your research. The more I learn the more I realize that many butterflies have an very narrow spectrum of host plants they can utilize in spite of sites touting that the butterfly can use dozens. Not so, says Louise. By adding your knowledge to the comments section, specifying your locale and what butterflies live there and what they need on BOTH ends, you really can contribute to the well being of one of the most beautiful of creatures we are blessed to share our planet Earth with. Thank you for your loving care and concern.
Love and caterpillar blessings!
Footnote: Just heard from a fellow named Jeffrey Caldwell, a friend of Louise’s and he had posted a list of plants in CA that would attract mama butterflies here.
Posted on August 26th, 2009 by Kathryn
Filed under: Animals