Bringing out the butterflies

  • Monarch

"Life begins the day you start a garden,’ says the Chinese proverb,” my man Patrick said, peering out from behind his newspaper.

“Get your life going then,” I retorted. “And instead of another disappointing vegetable patch, how about a garden to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Nothing makes the yard more dreamy than abundant life fluttering and humming about it.”

“I’d love to,” he answered, “But I know less about butterflies and hummingbirds than I do about tomatoes and squash,” he said.

“I’ll makes some calls,” I said.

“When you create a garden for butterflies and hummingbirds, you create an ecosystem,” said Tiger Palafox, manager of Mission Hills Nursery (619-295-2808; missionhillsnursery.com). “It is really fun to see all the animals it attracts.”

“Butterflies can’t survive in temperatures below 60 degrees,” he continued. “So on the coast, the butterflies [visiting the garden] will be about year-round, and inland it will be during springtime. Butterflies and hummingbirds don’t tend to go after ground covering, they prefer medium-sized bushes.”

“To attract the monarch, which is our state butterfly,” Palafox continued, “the primary plant is called the asclepias, its common name is butterfly weed. There are different varieties but mostly all forms of asclepias attract the monarch butterfly. Monarchs only eat asclepias, and asclepias only get eaten by monarchs. So it is kind of a single plant to a single variety. If you look at some of the other varieties, you will notice that there are multiple varieties of butterfly that eat the plant. But you can’t attract monarchs with anything but asclepias. Asclepias is a red, orange, and yellow flowering bush, and it gets to be about three to four feet tall. It wants full sun and pretty light on the watering.

“Next I would recommend the buddleja — common name, ‘butterfly bush,’” said Palafox. “It is a low-water plant, and there are multiple varieties. This one gets pink or white or purple clusters of cone-like flowers, and depending on the variety, it can be a small bush of three feet or a tall bush of eight feet. Many different varieties of butterflies will be attracted to it.

“Both of these plants do well on the coast or inland,” he added.

“Whenever you’re thinking about putting in a butterfly garden, you have to understand that the butterfly eats the plant. People think, We are going to attract butterflies! But when you attract butterflies, you attract caterpillars and caterpillars do a lot of damage to plants. There will be a period of time your plants will be chewed up drastically but they will recover and they will come back. It’s a whole cycle. The caterpillar is what makes the butterfly, and so you have to just allow it to complete its cycle.

“There are some natives,” Palafox continued, “that play host to butterflies, a lot of the varieties of salvia or sage. Cleveland sage is one of our native sages in our hills and mountains, and they do a great job of providing nectar for our butterflies, so they are a great food source. Butterflies don’t eat those ones too much, but the plant provides nectar for them. Salvia are bushes with purple to light blue flowers, and they grow from three feet to four feet tall.

“Ceanothus, which is also known as the California lilac, is a great nectar plant for butterflies. It has clusters of blue and purple flowers on it and it’s an evergreen that can be a bush or a low-growing shrub. It does well on the coast or inland.

“All of these plants that I have mentioned, will also attract hummingbirds, except the asclepias.”

At Mission Hills Nursery, these plants in one-gallon pots run between $6 and $8.

“Scabiosa, which is a pin cushion plant, a miniature bush, would work to attract butterflies,” said Antonia, customer service rep at Walter Andersen’s Nursery in Point Loma (619-224-8271; walterandersen.com). “It needs regular water and full sun. Also, the heliatrope [known also as cherry pie plant, which comes in purple, blue, and white] is a fragrant, purple bush that gets to be about three to four feet tall. It needs full sun and regular water. The lantana would also work for butterflies as would the asters.

“There’s a really nice native California salvia called the hummingbird sage,” she added. “A beautiful red plant, which smells great, is drought tolerant, takes full sun, and grows from two to four feet.”

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