Butterfly Plants

The most important butterfly plant
that California gardeners could plant is asclepias, or milkweed. Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed and
ingest an alkaloid from the plant that makes them taste bad to predators. Adult monarchs lay their eggs in milkweed
and the plants provide the sole food source for the caterpillars. Over time, the monarch’s habitat has been
threatened and there are fewer and fewer open fields of milkweed where monarchs
can stop and lay eggs along their migratory route.

While milkweed may sound
like—well—a weed, it is in fact a sturdy, attractive plant with narrow leaves
and small, star-like flowers that bloom in a variety of brilliant colors. The fact that the plants are visited constantly
by butterflies in the summer makes them all the more beguiling. I recently visited Lake Austin Spa Resort in
Texas, where the gardens were packed with Asclepias tuberosa, also
called butterfly weed. Bright orange,
red, and yellow flowers bloomed on every plant and the air was thick with
monarchs. They landed in my hair and
perched on my shoulder. It hardly
mattered what the plants looked like; if they attracted that many butterflies,
I wanted some for my own garden.

Many seed companies, including
Seeds of Change (888 762-7333) and Renee’s Garden Seeds (888 880-7228) now
offer ornamental milkweeds in colors that range from red to orange to pink, but
choosing a native milkweed like A. californica that is familiar to
butterflies in your area might win you the most winged visitors. Milkweed Farm (www.milkweedfarm.com or PO
Box 8754, Reston, VA, 20195) organizes their milkweed catalog by state,
offering nine varieties for California alone. A California company, Butterfly Encounters (www.butterflyenounters.com
or 925 548-2270) also offers a wide variety of native milkweed seeds. Check with your local chapter of the
California Native Plant Society (www.cnps.org or 916 447-2677) to find out
which species are most favored by butterflies in your area.

The plants are easy to start from
seed, although some native plant nurseries are now selling mature plants in
one-gallon containers. They require sun
and tolerate summer drought well. This
is a plant best left alone since it plays host to butterfly eggs and
caterpillars. If you cut back flowers
in fall, leave the stalks on the ground or in a brush pile: orioles and other birds are known to pull
off strips for their nests.