Bring butterflies to your garden with these plants
Q: How can I attract more butterflies to my garden? Can milkweed grow in the North State or is it too hot/dry?
A: To create a garden that will provide the best habitat for butterflies you need both nectar plants and host plants. The nectar plants provide food for the adult butterflies and the host plants are where they lay their eggs. The host plants are also the food source for the caterpillars once they hatch.
To start, I would first determine which butterflies are native to your area and make a list of their host plants. To find out this information go to the Calscape website at bit.ly/3zSptT2 and type your city into the location bar. The site will provide a list of butterflies found in your location. If you click on each of one of the butterfly photos in this list, you’ll see a list of the host plants for each species of butterfly.
When planting these host plants, be prepared for them to be munched on. We have had Gulf fritillary larvae completely demolish our passion vine here at the Shasta College arboretum every season.
In addition to providing host plants, nectar plants are also needed to attract the adult butterflies to your garden. It’s best to provide a variety of blooming plants so that there is always something in bloom, providing a food source all season long. Usually native plants and plants with a single layer of petals are best; avoid the double-blooming hybrid flowers as plant breeders may have eliminated much of the pollen or nectar in favor of other flower features. That said, some common garden plants that are good nectar plants include zinnias, lantana, butterfly bush, bottlebrush, Mexican sunflower, cosmos and aster.
Adding a very shallow pan of water mostly filled with sand or pea gravel, or a fountain where water just seeps out of a rock, makes a good water source for most pollinators. Butterflies get their water needs met from flower nectar, but they like to cool down on damp places. Other insects, especially bees, need water.
I would also recommend creating a damp salt lick in addition to the shallow water source. Do this by creating a damp spot in the yard and mixing a bit of table salt or wood ash into the wet soil. Butterflies will gather here for the salt and to cool down in the heat of the day. This watering and cooling down area is best placed in the shade or it may get too hot in the summer.
Other practices that can increase the number of butterflies found in your yard include eliminating pesticide use whenever possible, and providing shelter plants such as shrubs and trees that can provide places for the larvae to pupate.
Milkweed grows well in Northern California. In fact, there ae 15 species of milkweed that are native to California. Milkweed is a high-quality nectar plant for honey bees and other insects, and is the host plant for the monarch butterfly. The Xerces Society has an excellent guide to choosing and growing milkweeds by region. Go to bit.ly/3wvXcB1 to download it in PDF format.
You do want to plant the milkweed in an area where it will dry up in the fall to encourage the monarch to move on to overwintering sites. Also, be careful where you plant milkweed as it is toxic to livestock and pets that like to chew on plants.
The Shasta Master Gardeners Program can be reached by phone at 530-242-2219 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The gardener office is staffed by volunteers trained by the University of California to answer gardeners' questions using information based on scientific research.