Butterflies inside the Water Conservation Garden’s new Dorcas E. Utter Pavilion seem to pose as they light on flowers to sip nectar. Their still wings — a kaleidoscope of bold patterns in orange, black and yellow — bring “oohs” and “aahs” from visitors almost oblivious to the colorful plants blooming all around them.
Since the pavilion opened in April, home gardeners regularly stop by hoping to learn how to attract some of these same butterflies — Monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, Painted Ladies, Buckeyes and more — to their back yards throughout the seasons.
“Start by keeping the flowering going year-round,” advises Clayton Tschudy, director of horticulture and exhibits for the garden adjacent to Cuyamaca College. “Also be sure to include flowers that offer butterflies ‘flat landing pads,’ like those on yarrows, wallflowers, daisies, pincushions, star clusters, asters and butterfly bushes.” Adult butterflies typically feast on a variety of nectar sources, he adds, so any style garden can house plants they can’t resist.
“A Mediterranean-style garden can include lavenders and santolina, while buckwheats, sages and native daisies fit in a native garden,” he says. “Succulent gardens are a draw whenever something is in bloom.”
Another essential, water is best provided in shallow puddles or “muddles” that include moist mud, a source of needed nutrients. Rotting, soft fruits like bananas or melons also nourish these winged visitors, Clayton says.
Butterflies need places to roost, generally in sheltering tall shrubs and trees that protect them from wind. Ideally, these plants also provide nectar sometime during the year. “Bottlebrush, flowering cherry, melaleucas, native sycamores and buckeyes all are good choices,” Clayton says.
To experience their awe-inspiring reproductive cycle, add host plants to home habitats. Adult butterflies lay their eggs on these plants; and when hatched and grown, hungry caterpillars devour their leaves and flowers. As the caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies, emerald chrysalises often hang from the bare stems.
Many butterflies require specific host plants, Clayton points out. For example, Monarchs want only milkweeds, including orange-flowered butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa); blood flower (A. curassavica); tropical-looking giant Indian milkweed (Calotropis gigantea); and family jewels (A. physocarpa), a smallish tree with prickly round seed pods.
California Dogfaces prefer false indigo (Amorpha), while non-native Gulf Fritillaries have come to rely on flowering passion vines (Passiflora). In contrast, American Painted Lady caterpillars are generalists that munch on yarrows, California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) and other plants. Buckeyes pick snapdragons and monkey flowers.
Incorporate host plants into perennial borders and diverse garden locations to help disguise disfiguring by ravenous caterpillars, Clayton suggests. Consider leaving milkweeds and annual snapdragons in their black nursery pots so they can be easily removed and replaced after caterpillars strip them bare.
A demonstration garden being planted next to the pavilion will be an additional magnet for the county’s dozens of native butterflies, Clayton says. Reflecting wild habitats, it will incorporate sycamores, willows, coast live oaks and other native riparian trees with lower-growing shrubs found in the coastal sage scrub.
“Starting with the local plant community is key,” he says. “Rather than a piecemeal approach, this garden will mimic nature, creating a synergy that will attract lots more butterflies, as well as other beneficial insects.”
Dorcas E. Utter Memorial Butterfly Pavilion. The enclosed vivarium with host and nectar plants is surrounded by butterfly habitat gardens at the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon. Entrance fee is $5 for adults, $3 for kids 6-11 and free for garden members and children 5 and under. Garden admission is free. thegarden.org.
Zoro Garden. This sunken stone-grotto garden in Balboa Park that dates back to the 1935 California-Pacific Exposition is now a butterfly garden. Nectar and host plants are labeled. Access is west of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, along El Prado. A butterfly release there is part of Science Family Day every spring.
Bird and Butterfly Garden. Part of the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas, this garden showcases plants that attract and nurture butterflies and other winged visitors. Look for it by the Hamilton Children’s Garden. Free with admission to the garden. sdbgarden.org
Tijuana River Valley Regional Park. The new Bird and Butterfly Garden in this South Bay county park hosts winged visitors traveling the Pacific Flyway. Host and nectar plants line pathways, and tables are available for picnics. sdcounty.ca.gov/parks/openspace/tjrv.htm
The Monarch Program. Currently seeking a new home for a vivarium and its outreach efforts, this organization answers questions about butterflies and butterfly gardening. monarchprogram.org