Ask the Master Gardeners - Attract butterflies by planting flowers that provide food for them

By: Yonnie Murphy, UCCE Placer County Master Gardener
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Question. What can I do to attract more butterflies to my garden? My grandchildren love them. Answer. Watching butterflies up close and personal is a wonderful way to spend time outdoors. There are many ways to encourage butterflies in the garden. You can design an entire garden as a butterfly habitat or simply add a few choice plants. What attracts butterflies is nectar, their source of food. Flowers with bright color attract butterflies because the color is associated with the nectar. Most butterflies prefer open and bright areas such as meadows, roadsides and woodlands filled with wildflowers (also known as weeds to some). Some of the old-fashioned plants that attract butterflies and are also easy to grow here include purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, butterfly bush, lilacs, goldenrod, blazing star (liatris), phlox, lantana, zinnia, yarrow asters, cosmos, astilbe, honeysuckle and bee balm. If you have a space isolated from your more formal garden beds, plant Queen Anne’s lace, thistle and milkweed, often considered weeds. Those plants attract butterflies, but if you want butterflies to stay around, you will need host plants for the egg and larvae or caterpillar stage of the butterfly. For example, both the larvae and adult monarch butterfly use the milkweed plant for food. In the spring, before the milkweed blooms, the monarch adult will head to lilacs, lantana, and thistle. In the fall, they are attracted to blazing star, goldenrod and tickseed sunflower, according to the Web site Placer County is home not only to the monarch but many types of skippers, duskywings, hairstreaks, blues, metalmarks, fritillaries, checkerspots, crescents and tortoiseshells, among others. Their larval food plants include canyon oak, live oak, figwort, monkey flower, cheeseweed, nettle, lupin, fiddleneck, willow, Chinese elm, California lilac (ceanothus), baby tears, passion-flower vine, buckwheat, saltbush, goosefoot, tumbleweed, leadwort, deerweed and grasses (especially bermuda and salt grass). Enjoying the metamorphosis of butterflies from caterpillar to adult can be great fun, especially when shared with children. Being aware of what plants provide nectar and, of course, avoiding the use of any pesticides will encourage butterflies to seek out your garden. The Placer County Master Gardener Hotline is (530) 889-7388.