Arthur M. Shapiro, Center for Population Biology, UC Davis, Davis, CA 95616
This document is not copyrighted and may be circulated freely if properly credited. Last updated May 22, 2006.
- Because nearly all Sacramento Valley butterflies are weedy or fugitive species, you should not expect permanent establishment of breeding colonies on an ordinary residential lot, no matter what you plant. Most butterflies require a larger resource base than an ordinary residential lot can provide (larval host plants, pupation sites, adult food supply, territory).
- The principal function of a butterfly garden is to intercept randomly moving “excess” butterflies and detain them where they can be observed and enjoyed. In our area, such butterflies are most numerous from August through late October.
- Valuable natural history data can be obtained from a butterfly garden.
- Skillful planting will enable you to maximize both the number of individuals and the number of species you see at your site.
What to Plant
Plants that attract adults:
- California Buckeye (Aesculus californica): Blooms from April to June. This tree is attractive to nearly everything flying at that time. However, many of its regular foothill visitors (Hairstreaks, Checkerspots, Farmer Skipper (Ochlodes agricola)) do not occur on the Valley floor. Another species that visits it heavily, the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor), is only a common garden visitor near waterways or wildlands.
- Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus): Blooms from July through October and is extremely attractive to anything flying then. This plant tends to be short-lived on heavy clay soils and does best on light sandy loam with occasional summer watering. It is very attractive, with gray foliage and masses of butter-yellow flowers, but do not use as a cut flower: it smells like dirty sneakers (hence “nauseosus”)!
- White Buckwheats, St. Catherine’s Lace (Eriogonum spp.): Blooms in late summer. In southern California a host for various Blues and Hairstreaks, but not used here. Also attracts small skippers.
- California Lilac, Wild Lilac (Ceanothus spp.): Many species, with blue, pink or white flowers. Bloom mostly in spring and attract a diverse group of butterflies in the foothills (especially Blues and Hairstreaks). Not very useful in the Valley, though. Host plant of the California Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica), which only migrates through the Valley and does not breed.
Coyotebrush (Baccharis pilularis and ssp. consanguinea): Blooms from August to November. Both prostrate and erect forms are extremely attractive to all fall butterflies, including Blues, Ladies (Vanessa sp.), Buckeye (Junonia coenia), Purplish Copper (Lycaena helloides), Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus), and various skippers.
The other California species of Baccharis are all good butterfly flowers, but virtually unused in gardens.
Coyotebrush has separate sexes. Male plants are more attractive to butterflies than females. They do have an odd odor when in bloom.
- Butterfly-Bush (Buddleia, especially B. davidii): Only the purple and pink varieties are good for attracting Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), Swallowtails, Admirals and nearly everything else in summer. This is a rank and rather weedy plant that requires regular pruning. Also known as Summer Lilac.
- Lilac (Syringa vulgaris): The purple and pink varieties bloom in April and attract Swallowtails, especially Western Tiger (Papilio rutulus) and Pipevine (Battus philenor).
- Lavender (Lavandula): Blooms from April to December and attracts especially Skippers and Cabbage Whites (Pieris rapae).
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Blooms all year and attracts everything, but most useful in winter when little else is blooming.
- Common Fog Fruit, Lippia (Lippia or Phyla nodiflora): Really a subshrub or ground cover; blooms May-November and attracts Skippers, Hairstreaks, Ladies (Vanessa sp.) and Buckeyes (Junonia coenia).
- Lantana : Blooms more or less all year with many colors (yellow least attractive, orange and purple-pink best); Attracts great numbers of late-summer butterflies, including Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), Ladies (Vanessa sp.), Buckeyes (Junonia coenia) and especially “lawn” skippers like the Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus) and Field Skipper (Atalopedes campestris).
- Pride-of-Madeira (Echium): Blooms in April and May with huge spikes of cyanic- to violet-blue flowers; attracts Ladies (Vanessa sp.) and Monarchs (Danaus plexippus). Escaped and becoming weedy near the coast, but well-behaved inland where usually short-lived. Freeze-sensitive.
- Waxleaf and other Privets (Ligustrum): Bloom in May-June and attract various small butterflies. Use shrubby species; the Japanese tree privet is very invasive.
- Escallonia (E. rubra and exoniensis): Blooms all year, attracts everything; most useful in winter.
- Salpichroa is seen around old houses. It is a small-leaved climber with unshowy flowers dearly beloved of the West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella) in the dead of winter.
- Asters, Michaelmas Daisies (Aster species and cultivars): All colors do well and many bloom from July through November, or even longer. Among the best butterfly flowers, attractive to everything. (Note: Boltonia asteroides, which is extremely similar, is also outstanding. Chinese Asters (Callistephus) and most Fleabanes (Erigeron) are not.)
- Goldenrods (Solidago spp.): Bloom from July through November and are almost as good as Asters, especially for Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) in fall migration. The native species do well, but so do Eastern species. Some of the best are S. canadensis, altissima and sempervirens.
- Gum Plant (Grindelia): Blooms from May to November and attracts small butterflies, Ladies (Vanessa sp.) and Buckeyes (Junonia coenia). A great favorite of the Great Copper (Lycaena xanthoides). The common G. camporum and the showy Suisun Marsh species G. paludosa are both good.
- Salt Marsh Fleabane (Pluchea odorata): Blooms from July through October. Another marsh plant that does well in the garden and attracts a variety of butterflies.
- Perennial Sunflowers (Helianthus species): Bloom from July through October and are generally good at attracting Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) in migration. Jerusalem Artichoke (H. tuberosus) is one of these.
- Wild Buckwheats (Eriogonum sp.): Many species blooming at various times of the year do well here and attract many small butterflies. Most are Lycaenid host plants in their native ranges.
- Milkweed (Asclepias species): Purple Milkweed, A. cordifolius, blooms in late spring; Narrow-leaf Milkweed, A. fascicularis, and Broad-leaf Milkweed, A. speciosa, bloom in summer. Excellent for butterflies in general, especially Monarchs (Danaus plexippus). May be invasive; subject to Oleander Aphid and several other specialist insects.
- Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum): Blooms from April through July; excellent for Hairstreaks, Coppers (Lycaena sp.) and Ladies (Vanessa sp.) and a favorite of the Great Purple Hairstreak (Atlides halesus). Invasive.
- Coyotemint or Western Pennyroyal (Monardella species): Blooms from May through October; excellent at attracting everything; short-lived on heavier soils.
- Giant Hyssop (Agastache nepetoides): A montane plant but does well here; blooms June-September, longer if deadheaded; attracts large butterflies such as Swallowtails (Papilio) and Monarchs (Danaus plexippus). The dry flower/seed heads are a good moth-repellent sachet to use in closets.
- Sedum spectabile: Blooms in summer; attracts smaller species.
- Mints (Mentha spp.): Bloom May-December and attract everything. Outstanding butterfly plants, but invasive.
- Horehound (Marrubium vulgare): April-May; indispensable nectar source for the California Hairstreak (Satyrium californica) and Great Copper (Lycaena xanthoides), if you are lucky enough to get either!
- Tropical (Butterfly) Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica): Blooms June-November; attracts everything, including breeding Monarchs (Danaus plexippus). Subject to Oleander Aphid.
- Onions (Allium): Bloom from spring to late summer depending on species. The large, showy ones attract many butterflies (AND wasps and bees).
- Gayfeather (Liatris): A prairie wildflower ferom the central US, now often cultivated here; blooms July-October. Excellent for Skippers, Ladies (Vanessa sp.), Buckeyes (Junonia coenia), etc.
- Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium species) from the East, June-September; excellent for everything, but need a lot of water and get really tall.
- Verbena: Most species, especially blue and purple ones, excellent for small butterflies and Buckeye (Junonia coenia). The Mournful Duskywing (Erynnis tristis) especially appreciates tall Verbenas.
- Gazanias: Bloom May-December and attract skippers and the West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella); the West Virginia Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) is recorded breeding on the plant.
- Marigolds (Tagetes, Bidens, etc.): Bloom May-December. The smaller varieties are outstanding for small butterflies and skippers; the larger ones attract Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), etc. Note that the common Pot-Marigold, Calendula, is NOT attractive to butterflies in general.
- Zinnia: June-October; good at attracting everything.
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): October to June, very useful nectar source in winter.
- Thistles (all): Excellent nectar sources especially for Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), Swallowtails (Papilio sp.), Ladies (Vanessa sp.), etc. Yellow Star Thistle (Centaurea solstitialis): Also an excellent nectar source, but no one in his/her right mind would deliberately grow it.
- Vetch: Introduced annual species bloom late winter-early July and are attractive to most butterflies flying then, including Swallowtails (Papilio sp.).
- Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa): Excellent for late summer-autumn skippers.
Host Plants of Larvae
All will sustain occasional breeding if the butterfly species is available. Whether you want them on your property is up to you—and your relationships with your neighbors.
- Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.): Monarch (Danaus plexippus).
- Alkali Mallow (Malvella leprosa), Cheeseweed (Malva spp.), and Hollyhock (Alcea officinalis): Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella), Common Checkered Skipper(Pyrgus communis), Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus). In addition, Alkali Mallow is the (sole) host of the Small (or Least) Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus scriptura).
- Everlastings (Antennaria, Gnaphalium): West Virginia Lady (Vanessa virginiensis).
- Baby’s Tears (Soleirolia or Helxine), Artillery Plant (Pilea), Pellitory (Parietaria): Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta).
- Plantain (Plantago, especially P. lanceolata), Fog Fruit (Phyla or Lippia), Snapdragon (Antirrhinum), Fluellin (Kickxia): Buckeye (Junonia coenia).
- Saltbush (Atriplex spp.), Tumbleweed (Salsola spp.): Pygmy Blue (Brephidium exile).
- Deerweed (Lotus scoparius), Spanish Lotus (Lotus purshianus), Wild Buckwheats (Eriogonum spp.): Acmon Blue (Plebejus acmon).
- Vetches (Vicia and Lathyrus, except introduced garden species), Bird’s-Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), Sweet Clover (Melilotus spp.): Eastern Tailed Blue (Everes comyntas) (also eats Spanish Lotus); Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)
- Dock (Rumex spp.), Prostrate Knotweed (“Yard Grass”), Polygonum aviculare complex; Smartweeds (Polygonum spp.): Purplish Copper (Lycaena helloides)
- Turkey Mullein (Eremocarpus setigerus): Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)
- Fiddleneck (Amsinckia spp.), thistles (all, except Globe Thistle): Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
- Amaranth Pigweed (Amaranthus) (also garden Cockscomb, Celosia): Common Sooty Wing (Pholisora catullus)
- Sweet Fennel “Anise” (Foeniculum vulgare), Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum), most Apiaceae: Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon)
- Asters (aster spp.): Field Crescent (Phyciodes campestris campestris)
- Bermuda Grass (Cynodon dactylon): Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus), Field Skipper (Atalopedes campestris), Sandhill Skipper (Polites sabuleti sabuleti), Eufala Skipper (Lerodea eufala), perhapas Umber Skipper (Poanes melane)
- Elm (Ulmus americana and procera only), Hackberry (Celtis, usually not the Chinese species), Willows (Salix, including Weeping Willow, S. babylonica): Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
- Ash (Fraxinus), Sycamore (Platanus): Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus)
- Oaks (Quercus spp. including Cork Oak, Q. suber, and eastern Red, Black and Pin Oaks): Sad or Mournful Duskywing (Erynnis tristis), California Sister (Adelpha californica), California Hairstreak (Satyrium californica) (near extinction in Valley, though)
- Passionflower (Passiflora, including Maypop, P. incarnata, and P. alatocaerulea): Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) (but it’s a freeze-sensitive butterfly)
- California Pipevine (Aristolochia californica): Plant it and the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) will eventually find it.
Some Final No-Nos:
- If you want Great Purple Hairstreaks (Atlides halesus), don’t prune out ALL your Mistletoe. Its their only host plant!
- If you want butterflies, don’t use insecticides in the garden. This includes BT (Bacillus thuringiensis, Dipel), the bacterial insecticide.
- Don’t provide breeding habitat for disease-carrying mosquitoes!
THIS LIST IS NOT EXCLUSIVE! EXPERIMENT!