Many facets to building a successful butterfly garden

by Sally Levinson Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday May 12, 2001

Is a caterpillar a butterfly? Yes and no: Although a caterpillar has no wings, it is only a different life stage of the same animal.  

A successful butterfly garden caters to both life stages, the adult that sips nectar from flowers and the caterpillar which eats leaves.  

Although many people think flowers are important in a butterfly garden, the adults don’t eat all that much and many butterflies are just as happy to get their moisture from dead meat, dung, rotting fruit or mud.  

They will be thankful for the chance to visit flowers of Lantana, Jupiter’s Beard or Butterfly Bush, but they will be forever grateful to find the larval (caterpillar) food plant, because their offspring are ravenously hungry and rather fussy eaters.  

The spiky orange and black gulf fritillary caterpillars, for instance, will only eat passion vine. If you have room for only one butterfly plant in your garden, make it blue crown passion flower, also known as Passiflora caerulea.  

The butterflies, which are orange with silver spots on their under wings, tend to stay near this plant all day, making any yard look like a butterfly garden.  

Cabbage whites, a white butterfly with small black spots, also tend to stay near their host (caterpillar food) plant all day.  

As their name indicates, they lay their eggs on cabbages. They also lay on nasturtiums, which have orange and yellow flowers and are easy to grow from seed.  

Cabbage whites are rather plain looking compared to the stunning yellow and black anise swallowtails, which lay their eggs on fennel, a common weed in the western states.  

When properly maintained, fennel has a soft ferny texture. Cut back a section at a time over several months, it can provide fresh foliage for caterpillars all summer as it resprouts.  

Fennel, like most butterfly plants, needs no water once established. However, the caterpillars depend upon the plant for both solid and liquid nutrition and the butterflies only choose lush plants on which to lay their eggs, so regular water is a must. 

Oak trees, an exception to this rule, are prone to root rot if watered. They are home to California sister butterflies whose name is derived from the black and white coloration. 

Most nuns don’t have the orange spots that sisters have, though.  

The red admiral is another black and white butterfly with orange markings.  

The caterpillars eat another weed, pellitory, which can be found growing in shaded spots all over Berkeley.  

Although the plant prefers shade, the butterflies prefer sun, so it must be in the sun at least part of the day to attract butterflies.  

Growing about knee high with tiny white flowers, it can bring a texture of green to dark corners.  

Hollyhocks, on the other hand, have big bright flowers in many colors.  

Painted ladies are not interested in the flowers, however, and don’t care whether they are single are double since they lay their eggs on the leaves.  

After the caterpillars hatch, they protect themselves from predators with a bit of webbing.  

Buckeye caterpillars protect themselves by feeding at night on snapdragons and kenilworth ivy.  

They also eat plantain, a lawn weed that grows alongside the grasses as long as no herbicides are used.  

Butterflies and pesticides are incompatible because pesticides kill butterflies just as surely as they kill the pests.  

Milkweed, for instance, sometimes has an aphid problem, but killing the aphids could kill the monarch caterpillars, too.  

It is worth it to endure a few aphids to get a chance to see the exquisite orange and black butterfly.  

Compared to monarchs, skippers are small and drab, but they are delightful because they will grace a grassy garden whenever the sun is out.  

They lay its eggs on most grasses, including bamboo. Caterpillars eat almost every sort of garden plant: weeds, trees, vines, vegetables, turf and flowers, so it makes sense to integrate them into the entire garden.  

A comfortable seat is an important part of the plan, so the humans can watch the butterflies court, fight and lay eggs.  

These beauties of the insect world are easy to attract and endlessly fascinating.