About 25 years ago, my next-door neighbor brought home a half-dead tangle of a plant that she called a passionflower (Passiflora). She planted it in a large trough and set to work spraying it lavishly with Miracle-Gro.
It must have been a case of the right plant in the right place because it soon tumbled over the fence and took over my yard. For the last quarter-century birds have scattered the passion fruit seeds, vines the size of boa constrictors have twined up my walnut tree, and the exuberantly beautiful blue passionflowers have provided a backdrop for family portraits.
Most importantly, the plant has provided habitat for the gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), an orange butterfly that was introduced to the Bay Area from the South American tropics around 1908 and has now spread as far north as Sacramento.
There’s something so cheering about looking out the window at a cloud of orange butterflies fluttering around the blue passionflowers. It is a delightful way to begin the day.
Butterflies are important pollinators, but most people love them because they are so pretty. The fritillary larvae eat the passionflower leaves, and it’s fun to watch the caterpillars creeping on the foliage. (Children find this stage especially fascinating.) The Napa climate is generally hospitable to butterflies, and most plants they like do well here. It is not at all difficult to create a butterfly habitat in your yard.
Butterfly bush (Buddleia) blooms in a variety of colors, including purple, rose, yellow and cream. It likes well-drained soil and full sun, although some varieties thrive in partial shade. It is not unusual to see a buddleia covered with butterflies, enjoying its nectar and pollen while slowly waving their wings. Some Buddleias can easily reach 15 feet. They do spread; seeds travel through a neighborhood and sprout. If you are concerned about that, prune them to a height of 10 inches after they flower but before they set seed.
Many California native plants are irresistible to butterflies, and most natives need little water to thrive. The California wild lilac (Ceanothus) can be a shrub or ground cover, with blooms in an assortment of colors, although blue is the most common. They need almost no water in summer, although some fog-belt varieties appreciate a little moisture then.
The flannel bush (Fremontodendron), which sports butter-yellow flowers, is completely drought tolerant. The foliage can irritate skin (the leaves have a felt-like texture on the underside), so wear gloves when working with it and keep the plant away from paths. It is perfect against a stone wall or on a slope, and pollinators love it.
Another garden showstopper is the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri). This perennial can grow nine feet tall and makes me think of fried eggs, sunny side up. The flowers have white crepe paper-like petals, with a fluffy yellow center, and greyish green foliage. I had no luck growing them from seed, and no wonder: they propagate by way of rhizomes. Even then, Sunset’s Western Garden Book recommends that you burn pine needles on top of a foil-lined flat of sprigs from the spreading roots before planting them.
It’s much easier to buy a plant from a nursery that sells natives. However, all the fuss is worth it. Butterflies love Matilija poppy, it is truly spectacular, and it requires next to no care or water once established.
The California marigold (Tagetes lemonii) is another striking native that attracts butterflies. I first noticed this plant growing out of a crack in a Berkeley sidewalk a couple of years ago, and since then I have seen it everywhere. It is a shrub-like perennial, with golden-orange flowers and dark blue-green pointed leaves that smell like a combination of citrus, lavender and mint. It needs low to moderate water and looks wonderful with red poppies and blue salvia.
Mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) is a native shrub that is covered with sweet-smelling white blossoms that butterflies can’t resist. It is drought tolerant.
Many flowers that lure butterflies can be planted from seed. Try native milkweeds if you want Monarch butterflies in your yard. The showy milkweed (Asclepius speciosa) and Mexican whorled milkweed (Asclepius fascicularis) like the sun and, again, need little water. The purple coneflower (Echinacea) and sunflower (Helianthus) are also good choices, as are native yarrows (Achillea multifolium californicum and Achillea multifolium rosea).
Cosmos and zinnias are also easy to grow from seed and are good choices for attracting pollinators. Their flowers are of differing heights, so there is lots of movement from the butterflies as they consume nectar.
To create a true habitat, grow these plants in masses, not in isolated clumps. Make sure to have water nearby, as butterflies get thirsty. While I can’t guarantee a visit from Lewis Carroll’s bread-and-butterfly (last seen in “Through the Looking Glass”), many other varieties will enjoy your efforts, and you will love watching butterflies drift around your garden.
Workshop: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will hold a workshop on “Water-Saving Flowers and Beneficial Insects” on Saturday, May 5, from 9:30-11:30 a.m., at UC Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Ave., Napa. This workshop brings the home gardener face-to-face with beautiful water-thrifty flowers that help create a good-bug habitat and a balanced ecosystem. Learn what California native plants are lifelines for native pollinators. Also learn about plants from other Mediterranean regions that broaden your options for drought-tolerant flowers. Discover local beneficial insects that can help you manage pest infestations. They are here for you if you welcome them. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).