California Butterfly Dreamin’

An Article on Butterfly Gardening in Southern California by Kristen D’Angelo

Featured in the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) Butterfly Gardener Vol. 13 Issue 1, Spring 2008

Ever dreamed of the land where palm trees sway?
 Well, if you’re a butterfly enthusiast, there is much more than surf and sand to keep your imagination busy where Southern California is concerned and as for the butterfly gardener, Southern California is a dream come true.

Tiny Blues mimicking the sky visit coastal sage scrub and chaparral as a Cloudless Sulphur flutters by like a bit of harnessed sunshine. Gulf Fritillaries romance a passion vine while California Sisters dance among the shaded oaks. A weary monarch hangs with his fellow travelers, warmed and sheltered by the surrounding eucalyptus groves.

With elevations ranging from below sea level in the low deserts to 11,500 feet at the mountain peaks, Southern California is a beautiful and diverse place. Year round it plays host to a colorful array of butterfly species.

The myriad of habitats offered attracts both resident and migrant butterflies who, depending on their needs, enjoy the coastal plains, deserts, mountains and even backyard gardens that traverse the land.

As in most places, when butterfly gardening in Southern California, specific plants should be chosen in order to attract the butterflies that frequent ones local native plant communities. There are a variety of nice drought tolerant species indigenous to Southern California.

Many of these lovely plants act as both a host and nectar source for visiting butterflies. They are favorites of the Southern California butterfly gardener and nectar/host seeker alike. California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is one such species. Its dainty flower heads seem to last forever, changing from a soft pink hue in spring to a crimson brown in fall.

While in bloom it is magnet for nectar lovers of all types. The many native butterflies, including a variety of Coppers and Blues, who use this popular plant as their host, most definitely learn to share and share alike!

Evergreen, fragrant, and colorful, California Lilac (Ceanothus) is also adored by the local frequent flyers. In early spring this hardy shrub displays sweet blooms of blue attracting many. Among them are the Pale Swallowtail, the Spring Azure, and the Brown Elfin, all of whom call this plant their host.

A member of the Sunflower Family, Pearly Everlasting (Gnaphalium californicum), blankets the rolling hills, blooming from January until July. It is the preferred host plant of the American Painted Lady. Within its wooly hairs and tiny white “pearly” heads her offspring cozily make their home.

Use it’s host, False Indigo Bush (Amorpha fruticosa), to lure California’s official state butterfly, the California Dogface, into your garden. The male of this species is quite distinctive with his poodle-faced forewings, but good luck trying to catch a glimpse of his unique markings as he rarely lands with his wings open.

One knows springtime has arrived in Southern California when the sunny yellow flowers of Deerweed (Lotus scoparius) begin to brighten the hillsides. Plant this tenacious bloomer and before long you can expect to have the company of such host seekers as the Bramble Hairstreak, the Silvery Blue, and the Funereal Duskywing.

Female Monarchs and Queens are drawn to the plush white-rose colored star clusters characteristic of one of Southern California’s natives, Indian Milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa). As a result of this attraction, its broad velvety leaves are often adorned in the black, yellow, and white stripes of hungry resident caterpillars.

Looking to entice some other ladies into your garden, use Bush Mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) and Bush Lupine (Lupinus longiflorus). Both flaunt attractive flowers and are host plants for several butterflies, including the West Coast Lady and Melissa Blue, respectively.

Common Rue (Ruta graveolensis) also a good addition to any Southern California butterfly garden. Female Giant Swallowtails will gladly use it as a host plant, which makes local citrus growers happy too.

Sticky Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus ), host for the Buckeye, Bush Sunflower (Encelia californica), host for the Checkerspot, and Desert Senna (Senna Armata), host for the Cloudless Sulphur, are three more fine flora worthy of mention. To catch the eye of all interested passer-byers, include these flowering favorites in your garden.

If ample room is available, consider the Arroyo Willow (Salix lasiolepis), host for the Lorquin’s Admiral, the Mourning Cloak, and the Western Tiger Swallowtail.

The Coast Live Oak (Quercas agrifolia), which hosts the California Sister and the Mournful Duskywing, is also a noble addition to any garden setting. These striking native trees not only serve as host plants for several local butterflies, but also provide them and others with a sanctuary from elements, whether they be a summers blistering heat or a storms windy chill.

California dreaming on such a winter’s day…The wonderful diversity of both the butterfly population and native plant species hosted by the Southern California terrain is indeed a dream come true for the local butterfly gardener.

So, next time your mind starts wandering, picture yourself lying on the beach somewhere in Southern California. The soft sun-warmed sand is beneath you, comforting rays reach down from above easing your mind as the soothing rhythm of the surf lulls you to sleep.

Now you are dreaming! California “Butterfly” Dreamin’ to be precise. Don’t be surprised if when you open your eyes to the sky above, it is filled with not just California’s sunny skies, but scores of its beautiful butterflies fluttering about.

Author Kristen D’Angelo is a freelance writer and photographer who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. She was formerly a social worker in California. Now, in addition to her writing, Kristen is a partner in Obsession With Butterflies and an active member of the Orange County Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA). She resides in southern California.