A butterfly garden must have native flowers, trees and shrubs that nourish both caterpillars and adult butterflies.
“Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
Ah, the elusive butterfly. Poets sweetly mourn its fleeting glory, and beauty; painters strive to capture its sun-laced wings in most exquisite detail. The same summer breeze that floats a butterfly one direction will just as silently bear it in another.
But for gardeners, the butterfly doesn’t have to be just a flitting glint of enchantment. Like ancient spells, some plants native to the Willamette Valley attract butterfly caterpillars, while other blossoms ooze with nectar for adult butterflies. Mix the right native trees, shrubs and flowers for a full-cycle butterfly habitat, and gardeners can enjoy a pageant of fluttering, kaleidoscopic wings from about now into autumn.
“If you really like butterflies, if you want to see them a long time in the summer, then you need to provide for all of their needs,” sums up Eric Wold, a biologist by trade and president of the North American Butterfly Association’s Eugene-Springfield chapter.
Though pesticides, farming and urban sprawl have cut deeply into native habitats for butterflies, take heart: Gardeners can easily provide for the needs of these “flying flowers,” says Alice Doyle, co-owner with Greg Lee of the wholesale Log House Plants nursery near Cottage Grove.
“If gardeners will grow the plants required as fodder for caterpillars, then we’ll have more butterflies,” exhorts Doyle.
Her nursery has made some lofty headlines for its “Butterfly Bed and Breakfast Project,”
which supplies certain retail nurseries with host plants for 29 species of butterfly native to
this area west of the Cascades. “Host plants” must contain precise chemical properties essential for the caterpillar’s protection from predators. Butterfly larvae, or caterpillars, will fatten up on the host plant before eventually forming a chrysalis and morphing into an adult butterfly.
“The best plantings are those in good-sized groups, not just a plant here and there,” Doyle says. “If you have room, plant not only one, but three or five of each host plant.”
Wold and his wife, Brin Narayan-Wold, already lured at least 11 of the 90 species of butterfly documented in Lane County to their nature-knows-best yard and garden in north Eugene. The couple started landscaping with plants native to the Willamette Valley after buying their modest-size home and lot two years ago, and their goal is a dynamic ecosystem for not only butterflies and hummingbirds, but about anything else with six legs and/or wings.
“I’ve always been interested in the cycle of life,” explains Wold, a natural resources planner for the city of Eugene. “What happens in most garden settings, people spend money to basically kill things on plants. But we want birds and butterflies to come into the yard and use the plants.”
Rather than pesticides, which are more threatening to butterflies than birds gobbling fuzzy little caterpillars, a hungry food chain handles the dirty work of pest control. And by landscaping with native plants in place of green lawns, which are not beneficial to butterflies, the couple also avoid commercial fertilizer and excessive watering.
“We’re the only ‘lawnless’ house on our street,” beams Brinda Narayan_Wold. “We’re a 5-star hotel for butterflies and caterpillars. We’re open for business and just waiting for the little guys to come and devour what we have for them.”
On the garden’s menu for butterfly caterpillars are host plants native to the valley, such as bleeding heart, lupine, Scouler’s willow and an Oregon ash tree. The nectar list for adult butterflies also includes local-yokel species such camass, California poppy, Canada goldenrod, milkweed and numerous others.
The garden’s leafy banquet has been especially yummy for the two most common guests, Western tiger swallowtail and Anise swallowtail. But the couple also have spotted nine other species in their yard: silvery blue, spring azure, red admiral, painted lady, field crescent, common wood-nymph, sachem and one non-native garden pest from Europe, cabbage white.
Home, sweet home
Cushy quarters for butterflies start with a sunny area sheltered from wind, according to the “Sunset Western Garden Book.” Leaves, rock crevices, damp spots, a pile of wood or brush and even weeds add to the home comforts when you’re lighter than a puff of wind.
Indeed, butterflies at least have a fighting chance in a garden with “structural complexity,” as Wold puts it. It’s a perilous kingdom out there: Probably nine out of 10 butterfly caterpillars never survive into adulthood, he says. But if, say, an Anise Swallowtail in Wold’s garden somehow survives its caterpillar stage on a fennel plant, it may seek tree bark for camouflaging its pupa, or chrysalis, stage. Hiding means surviving.
“If it’s cold or raining, having something like a brush pile, where they can sneak in and be protected for the night, is important to butterflies as well,” Wold notes.
Butterflies also need water and mineral salts, explaining why they’re often seen around mud puddles. In his own garden, Wold has several shallow trays of salted water mounted on poles just high enough to escape the curiosity of the family dog, Chica. “She’s never successfully
caught a butterfly, but he likes to chase them,” he says.
Know your flora
Take care when buying host plants, because butterfly larvae are terribly picky about what they eat. Only a specific host plant will do for some butterflies: The monarch caterpillar, for instance, must have native milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) for survival. A Clodius parnassian
caterpillar won’t even sniff at a plant unless it’s native bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), which actually contains a toxic chemical.
“But the Clodius parnassian can ingest the chemical and retain it in its body. If a bird tries to eat the caterpillar, it’s left with a foul taste in its mouth and spits it out. Birds learn quickly to avoid that butterfly,” Wold says.
One choice nectar plant is butterfly bush (Buddleia), but Ironically the non-native plant isn’t recommended by the butterfly association’s Eugene-Springfield chapter.
“We highly discourage using butterfly bush,” Wold says. “There’s no question it’s an excellent nectar plant, but the problem is, it’s an invasive species. It actually starts taking over the native habitat of some of our most important host plants, which are willows occurring along streams.
“For thousands and thousands of years, butterflies in our area have survived on native nectar, so we would encourage people to use native plants as often as possible.”
Wold’s favorite retail nursery for native plants is Doak Creek Native Plant Nursery in Lorane. He also likes the wholesale Balance Restoration Nursery in Cottage Grove, but says you’ll probably
need gardening friends for achieving the bulk order.
Bloomer’s Nursery Inc. in Eugene also carries some native plants for butterfly gardens, Wold says. Log House Plants supplies several local nurseries with its “Butterfly Bed & Breakfast” host plants: The Bookmine in Cottage Grove, Down to Earth and Gray’s Garden Centers in Eugene.
– Home & Garden staff writer Kelly Fenley may be reached at 338-2292 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Butterfly host plants
These widely-used native host plants recommended by the North American Butterfly Association’s Eugene-Springfield chapter will attract from two to five species of butterfly caterpillar: stinging nettle (Urtica dioica); chokecherry (Prunus virginiana); American vetch (Vicia americana); oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor); American wintercress (Barbarea othoceras); mugwort (Artemesia douglasiana); pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea); red alder (Alnus rubra); redstem ceonothus (Ceanothus sanguineus); yarrow (Achillea millefolium); Cusick’s checkermallow (Sidalcea cusickii); meadow checkermallow (Sidalcea campestris); slender chinquefoil (Potentilla gracilis); bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa); fernleaf lomatium (Lomatium dissectum); many-leaved lupine(Lupinus polyphyllus); bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum); showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa); yellow monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus); California black oak (Quercus kelloggii); Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana); Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana); broadpetal strawberry (Fragaria virginiana); early-blue violet (Viola adunca); Scouler’s willow (Salix scouleriana).
Also look for “Butterfly Bed & Breakfast” host plants developed by Log House Plants for certain Oregon nurseries.
Check with local nurseries or visit the Eugene-Springfield North American Butterfly Association’s Web site at www.naba.org/chapters/nabaes The chapter’s phone number is (541) 431-7388.
From the Eugene Register-Guard, Home & Garden section, May 17, 2001. Photos by Eric Wold and Bruce Newhouse.