Planning a Butterfly Garden

Buckeye Butterfly in the Garden © Las Pilitas Nursery

 Photo courtesy of Las Pilitas nursery

The Pasadena Rose Parade is behind us now, but the weather it is famous for remains: clear, sunny skies and short-sleeve temperatures. January, what better time for the California native gardener to start a new Wildlife Garden!  In reflecting on last year’s garden, I have decided that I don’t see enough butterflies.  Sure, they visit the California native perennials on my hillside, but I don’t see a lot of butterfly traffic through my garden.  Why not?  Not enough butterfly friendly plants.  So, with my Holiday Gift Certificate to a local Native Plant Nursery, off I go to see what native plants for butterflies I can find for my new California Butterfly Garden.

One of the most gratifying wildlife gardens you can create is a butterfly garden.  Who doesn’t love to watch butterflies fly through the garden, alighting on flowers that are bright with color in the warm, late spring sun. Every part of the country has its own butterflies.  Today I want to show you some of our California butterflies that are at home here in the Santa Monica Mountains, as well as some of the nectar & host plant choices.   It is always a good idea to do your homework before rushing out to the nursery.

To make your butterfly garden a success, you will need to supply both nectar and larval host plants.  Nectar plants will feed the adult butterflies.  Larval or host plants are those that will feed the caterpillars. Different species of butterflies have different needs, especially when it comes to the native butterfly host plants.  Caterpillars are important. Without caterpillars, there are no butterflies.

In addition to the well-known Monarchs, there are so many different California butterflies, but here are some favorites that I hope to attract to my Southern California native plant garden.

Western Tiger Swallowtail on Salvia Pozo Blue, ©LasPilitas Nursery

Photo used by permission of

The Western Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio rutulus) likes a wide variety of plants, but really likes this sage.

Salvia Pozo Blue is a very drought tolerant green-gray perennial, which makes it perfect for my canyon garden.  Its flowers are violet-blue and the foliage is very fragrant like Musk Sage (Salvia clevelandii). It is a native of the Chaparral and Coastal Sage Scrub communities.

Many other species of butterflies and a lot of hummingbirds can enjoy this sage also.  It can be made into a butterfly hedge of up to 3 ft height.  I think I may just do that.

Salvia Pozo Blue, Grey Musk Sage, © LasPilitas Nursery

Photo used by permission of

Host Larval Plants for the Western Swallowtail: California Sycamore,  Fremont or Gila Cottonwood, Black Cottonwood,  Arroyo Willow, White Alder (I have Cottonwoods already)

California Sister Butterfly (Adelpha bredowii californica) © LasPilitas Nursery

Photo used by permission of

California Sister Butterflies (Adelpha bredowii californica)  rarely sip nectar from flowers, but instead prefer fallen fruit! Sometimes they will enjoy the nectar of California Buckeye, (Aesculus californica) and Toyon, (Heteromeles arbutifolia) flowers.  In a native plant garden, the California Sister Butterfly will overwinter in oak trees.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) Topanga Canyon, CA Photo by Kathy Vilim

Larvae Host Plants for the California Sister Butterfly: the Coast Live Oak, (Quercus agrifolia) and Canyon Live Oak, (Quercus chrysolepsis)       (Great I have lots of oaks, as well as Toyon)

Buckeye Butterfly, Junonia coenia on Rabbitbrush, Chrysothamnus nauseosus, © LasPilitas Nursery

Photo used by permission Las Pilitas Nursery

The Buckeye Butterfly, (Junonia coenia) has distinctive, easy to recognize markings. You can see them in the Santa Monica Mountains all throughout the summer. One of their favorite nectar plants is Rabbitbrush.

Rabbitbrush, (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) has showy yellow flowers with small inconspicuous leaves. It is a very drought tolerant desert shrub.

Larval Host Plants for the Buckeye Butterflies: Plantain species such as Plantago lanceolata and P. erecta, Monkey flower, (Mimulus species), and Snapdragon, (Antirrhinum species). YAY! Monkey flowers!

Monkey Flower, Mimulus Species, ©LasPilitas Nursery

Photo used by permission Las Pilitas Nursery

Well, looks like I already have the native butterfly host plants that these butterflies need. So, I will be looking then for enough Salvia Pozo Blue (Grey Musk Sage) to make a hedge, as well as Rabbitbrush.  There are many more butterflies to attract and plants to buy, but I think I am off to a good start.  Come spring, I should enjoy watching flitting butterflies as I work in my canyon garden.  Hope your springtime garden plans are coming along too!

“When it comes to supplying food for other animals, no group of insects surpasses the moths and butterflies….. If we were forced to care for only one group of insects in our restored suburban landscape, we would do well to choose Lepidoptera” Doug Tallamy

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  1. says

    Kathy I love to see what other parts of the country have as far as butterflies and native plants to support them. Some familiar and similar butterflies loving some very different plants. I love how easy the post flows so folks can follow it when planning a butterfly garden…great quote and I agree…I work hard to support the moths and butterflies first!

  2. says

    Great article. I think we have the buckeye in much warmer parts of the Vancouver Lower Mainland if not maybe on Vancouver Island. I live on a 2,000 foot mountain *Burnaby Conservation Forest”. It’s wet, colder than other areas of the vicinity and in fall and spring, often foggy. We have a lot of wildlife habitat And bats and swallows…! Rarely we will see a monarch. Do the monarch lay eggs during their northerly migration? Your description of the nectar and host combination is most helpful. I planted poppies on my balcony a while back for example. Your article will bring me much further ahead.
    Lovely photos.
    Did you take them?

    Vivian recently posted..Support Greg Fenton, park superintendent, block the privatization of Jasper National Park

  3. says

    Hi Vivian, Sounds wonderful where you live, with all that wildlife! Monarchs can live in Vancouver Spring/Summer but most overwinter down here in SoCal, as they cannot live in freezing temps. Yes, they do lay eggs on their northern migration. After mating, the females fly low in search of Milkweed plants, the host plants for Monarchs. I am glad you enjoyed my description of nectar & host plants, however, they are native plants to SoCal where I live. You will want to check what is native to your region. Your local Native Plant Society should be able to help. (Photos courtesy of LasPilitas Nursery)
    Thank you for your comment.
    Kathy @nativegardener recently posted..Top 5 Favorite Posts from 2011

  4. says

    I have 2 varieties of culinary sage. One of them flowered for the first time last year, I was surprised, because my season is so short I never thought about them flowering. It’s great that you can depend on sage flowers to attract hummingbirds and butterflies, and that the plants grow so big. I have cottonwood, alder and willows on my property . I doubt they attract swallowtails because they flower in spring, late May/June, and I’m sure it would be too cold. I don’t even know what the butterflies are that visit my garden. You’ve inspired me to find out:)
    melanie watts recently posted..My Garden Is Still Feeding Me


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