Gardening for Butterflies

  • Variable checkerspot butterflies need nectar for food while they search for the appropriate host plant to lay their eggs on. Photo: Marc Kummel
  • Butterflies will often deposit their eggs on the underside of a leaf where they are more protected. Photo: Marc Kummel
  • Caterpillars will consume several plants but their principal host plant is sticky monkeyflower. Photo: Marc Kummel
  • An adult butterfly will emerge from the chrysalis formed by the caterpillar. Photo: Marc Kummel

The lovely winged jewels we call butterflies are the pioneering and reproductive life stage of an insect that goes through 3 other distinct stages: eggs, larvae (caterpillars), and pupae (chrysalids). The adult stage, the butterfly, is technically called the imago. About eighty percent of all insects are holometabolus, which is a way of partitioning resources, so that each life stage does not compete with any other. Your habitat garden needs to provide for the needs of every life stage in order for there to be butterflies.

The purpose of a butterfly’s often short life “on the wing” is simply to find a mate and the host plant on which to lay the eggs of the next generation. They will be looking for the plant that their hatched larvae will eat; many butterfly species are extremely choosy about what plant that is. The adult butterfly will need nectar for energy as she hunts for her special host plant. If you are interested in attracting a specific type of butterfly, check the handout at right, Butterfly Larval Host Plants, to learn some of the appropriate plants.

To get a good indication of which butterfly species are already present in the general area of your garden, start with specimens of flowering plants that are noted as really good nectar sources, and then observe the butterflies that come into your garden to feed. Buddleias, verbenas, and lantana, though not native, bloom for a long period of time and are loved by butterflies. Flowers in the composite family (aster, sunflower, or daisy), offer a landing pad when fully opened, which is important for the larger butterflies like the Monarchs. Flowers in the composite family are composed of hundreds of individual disc flowers, and petal flowers, and each of these tiny flowers provides nectar and pollen, thus providing a lot of food energy in one place!  If you can, allow “managed” populations of weeds such as Italian thistle, English plantain, and cudweeds, which are favored larval host plants of some beautiful butterfly species.

Butterflies are not important pollinators of plants, but their beauty certainly adds to the charm of any garden!

The Swallowtails

Within the family Papilionidae are some of the largest and most spectacular butterflies in the world. Four species are commonly seen in Marin; each one associated with a particular type of habitat. Three are yellow with black markings; the Western Tiger Swallowtail, with a nearly 4" wingspan is the largest butterfly in Marin; and the Pipevine Swallowtail is the only large 'blackish' butterfly in Marin. 


The "Whites"

One of the most common butterflies we see around Marin is the Cabbage White; and it has the distinction of being the only naturalized exotic butterfly in our area. This species has successfully established itself over the entire continent since its apparent introduction from Europe into southeastern Canada in the mid 1800's.  Most likely it was imported as larvae, hidden within the leaves of a cabbage plant. People called them 'cabbage worms', and since they fed on food crops, they were considered pests.

The Other "Ladies"

There are three closely related 'Ladies' that are easy to provide for in a habitat garden; the Painted Lady, the American Lady, and the West Coast Lady; however, they are not always easy to tell apart. Personally, I’m happy to see any and all of the butterflies coming to my garden for resources, and when I notice a medium-sized orangey butterfly I can be pretty sure it is one of the ‘ladies’. They often don’t sit still long enough, or with their wings held just so, to easily identify the characteristic field marks.

Painted Lady Larval Host Plants

Other Larval Host Plants

Painted lady larva will also feed on weedy thistles in the Cirsium and Silybum genera, as well as the dreaded Yellow Star Thistle (Centaurea solstitialis), and related cultivated plants like Artichoke and Cardoon. The larvae also feed on other members of the Aster/Sunflower family such as yarrows and  sunflowers.

Painted Lady Butterflies

The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is the most cosmopolitan of all butterflies on earth. This butterfly is widely distributed all over the Northern hemisphere, and can be seen in all types of habitats except dense forests. Painted Ladies lay their eggs on many different plants, and their larvae feed on a wider variety of plants (polyphagus) than most other butterfly species.