Native Plants for Butterfly Gardens

 

Butterflies need food plants (also called host plants) for feeding in their caterpillar stage and nectar plants as adults. Most butterfly flowers are sun-loving. Butterflies prefer purple, pink, yellow and white flowers. Grow groups or masses of a plant of one color, rather than single plants of different colors. Locate for full sun exposure unless care instructions are otherwise. Most of the listed plants are easy to grow. Butterfly species may not find your garden unless you live near habitat where the species is found.

Check Grow Native Nursery for the California native plants found on this list. Our nursery staff can help you establish your native plant butterfly garden.

References: "California Butterflies," John Garth and J. Tilden, 1986; "National Audubon Society Field Guide to California," 1998; "Butterflies in North America," James A. Scott, 1986.

Growth form

Name

Common name

Food/Nectar

Comments/special care tips

The associated butterfly for host plant (food plant)

If none listed, the plant is a good nectar choice for wide variety of butterflies.
Annual Chaenactis glabriuscula Yellow pincushion N Winter blooming
Annual Coreopsis bigelovii Bigelow’s coreopsis N Golden heads
Annual Gilia capitata Globe gilia N Pale to light blue-violet; April to July
Annual Helianthus annuus Sunflower N Flowers from February to October
Annual Lasthenia californica Goldfields N Orange-yellow flowers; Spring; Most of California
Annual Layia platyglossa Tidy tips N Yellow with white tips in spring; Grassy sites
   
Annual or Perennial Lupinus sp. Lupines F many species and colors Orange sulfur
Perennial Achillea millefolium Common yarrow N Aromatic; White clusters spring to summer
Perennial Aquilegia formosa Western columbine N Red and yellow flowers; Late spring; Afternoon shade
Perennial Arabis 'Spring Charm' Rock-cress F/N Petals rose-purple; Spring only Cabbage white
Perennial Artemisia sp. Sage F Aromatic Painted lady
Perennial Asclepias sp. Milkweed F/N Food plant for monarchs
Perennial Epilobium canum California Fuchsia N Red flowers; July to November
Perennial Erigeron glaucus Seaside daisy N Pink or lavender; April to August; Remove dead flowers
Perennial Eriogonum fasiculatum California buckwheat F/N Nectar rich Lupine blue; Bramble hairstreak
Perennial Erysimum concinnum Wallflower N Often annuals in Southern California
Perennial Heterotheca villosa California golden aster N Yellow flowers; spring and summer
Perennial Lessingia filaginifolia California aster F/N Spring blooming Gabb’s checkerspot
Perennial Monardella villosa Coyote Mint N Aromatic A favorite of butterflies
Perennial Salvia sp. Wild sage N Aromatic; Blue or lavender; Spring
Perennial   Perennial grasses F P Good larval food for skippers
   
Shrub Amorpha californica False Indigo F Purplish flowers; Some shade California dogface
Shrub Ceanothus sp. California lilac F/N Flowers in spring Host for ceanothus silkmoth
Shrub Encelia californica Coast bush sunflower N Spring flowers; Sprawling; Grows up to 4 feet tall
Shrub Lotus scoparius Deerweed F/N Tiny yellow flowers Blues; Sulfurs
Shrub Malacothamnus sp. Mallow F Spring to summer Painted lady; West coast lady
Shrub Malosma laurina Laurel sumac F/N Tall, leafy; evergreen Host for ceanothus silkmoth
Tree or Large Shrub Aesculus californica California buckeye N 20-35 ft. tall; flowers white or pale rose
Tree or Large Shrub Platanus racemosa Western Sycamore F Deciduous, needs regular water Tiger swallowtail
Tree or Large Shrub Quercus agrifolia Coastal live oak F Up to 80 ft. tall, 50 ft. spread California sister
Tree or Large Shrub Salix lasiolepis Arroyo Willow F Riparian, needs regular water Mourning cloak; Lorquin’s admiral
   
Vine Lonicera subspicata Honeysuckle N Clambering evergreen shrubs; Yellowish flowers

Providing Plant Health Care

“The leaves started drooping yesterday. My plant does not look good. Can it be saved?”

Water may be the problem
Water (either too little, too much or at the wrong time) is a primary cause of death for garden plants. To figure out what is going on you should start by checking the soil. If it is damp where the roots are, then over watering or watering when the soil is warm may be the culprit. Watering warm soil creates conditions that support the growth of pathogenic bacteria and fungi. Native plants adapted to dry summers are especially susceptible to these pathogens. Water is present but the plant can not absorb it due to root damage. These plants usually do not recover. The only thing you can do is cut the water, let the soil dry out and see what happens.

If the soil is dry and the plant perks up when watered, it was thirsty due to too little water. Water deeply and hope it was not too stressed to recover. Be aware that some plants will droop during the heat of the day but recover as temperatures cool down. As long as they perk up when the sun goes down, hold off on water.


Young plants, those not yet established, are most vulnerable during severe weather. Their small size and undeveloped root systems make it hard for them to survive weeks of extreme heat. Yet, water and warm soil often lead to root rot. So it seems that watering is bad and withholding water is bad. Observing your plants carefully—looking at the leaves, both old and young and the buds—can tell you a lot about what they need. When old leaves turn yellow and drop, this may just be part of your plant’s normal seasonal cycle. It is common in sages, monkey flowers and some Ceanothus. When the younger leaves and buds dry up, you probably have a problem. If the whole plant wilts, this is a bad sign as well. When stem tips and leaves droop slightly the plant most likely needs water. If you must irrigate in the summer, try to do it when the soil is cool, such as early morning or on foggy, cool days.


Keeping trees healthy
It is particularly upsetting when we lose older plants, especially trees. There are many reasons a tree may fail, but again, improper watering is a common culprit. Coast live oak is an important example. This tree is susceptible to Armillaria mellea (oak root fungus) which thrives in moist, warm soil. To avoid diseases and maintain overall health, you should not provide summer water to established coast live oaks that predate your home and garden. Young trees will need summer water during the establishment period which can be two to three years. Other trees that are adapted to summer water, even coast live oaks, will need continued summer irrigation. Try to water early in the morning when the soil is cool.

Construction near trees, especially under the canopy, also can be very detrimental. When making changes to your yard, or planting near a mature tree, ask yourself: Which is more important, the hundred year old tree or the changes you are contemplating? Are the azaleas that will give your yard added color more important than the majestic oak tree that provides shade for your home and food for the birds? Do you need a functioning sewer system for your house, even though digging up the broken pipes may put your tree at risk? In the first case, you should rethink your plans. Obviously, the answer in the latter example is: yes the sewer system is critical to your home, but maybe you can divert a new pipe around the canopy of the tree. Be especially careful when changing soil grade near established plants. Trees and plants absorb much of their water and air from roots that are found near the surface of the soil. Removing soil will expose and damage these roots. Adding soil reduces aeration and can suffocate them.

Watering California Native Plants

Improper watering is one of the biggest reasons for plant failure. In fact, over-watering, especially while native plants are not actively growing during the hot summer months, is a major problem. On the other hand, we often forget that many California native plants do most of their growing during the cooler, damper winter weather. A slight misting or a little drizzle will not provide enough water. This is especially true for young, unestablished plants, but even mature plants benefit from infrequent, deep watering during dry winters. If we do not get a good soaking rain for more than a couple of weeks, you may need to provide supplemental irrigation.

After planting natives during the winter season—the best time to plant in Southern California—it is important to water your new plants thoroughly to make sure that they settle in and their roots are completely wet. Through the first season your plants should not be allowed to dry out totally. Water well and then allow them to dry partially. If the plant is drooping and the soil is dry be sure to water immediately.

The roots of plants absorb water in the form of vapor from pockets in the soil. For this reason it is best for the soil to be watered thoroughly and then allowed to dry. A thorough watering ensures that the entire root ball receives water. Allowing the soil to dry creates good conditions for the absorption of water by the root hairs, and it reduces the likelihood of root rots from soil pathogens.

Get to know your plants and your garden conditions by checking your garden often. Dig down a few inches and feel the soil to determine whether your plants need water. Observe your plants so that you can tell when they are thirsty before they become too stressed.

Methods of lawn removal

There are many ways to remove your lawn. Some of the most common are: digging out the grass, cutting off the water supply, solarization (read more about solarization). Another method is the lasagna-method—laying cardboard sheets on the grass, covering it with mulch, wetting it down and allowing the whole thing to decompose over time. Please do what you can to avoid the use of chemical herbicides in your quest to go turfless.

The best method depends on the type of grass, whether it is in sun or shade and what will be planted in the new garden. It is easier to rid oneself of Bermuda in the shade than the sun, so taking it off life support in shady areas will probably work better than in the sun where Bermuda can survive on virtually nothing. If you expect to plant a ground cover, you will pay special care to removing weeds because they will be very difficult to control when you have to pick them out of the new plantings. Whatever method you use, Bermuda, nutsedge, oxalis and other weeds will probably require some ongoing removal.

What's next?

Although California native plants do not behave quite like turf, there are several native plants that make nice, low groundcovers.

A mix of gramma grass (Bouteloua gracilis) and buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) is an interesting, partially native turf. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium ‘Rosea’, can also be used as a turf substitute (see Lummis House in Los Angeles). It can take limited foot traffic but will not provide a durable walking or play surface. Clustered field sedge, Carex praegracilus, is another native turf substitute. This looks more like a dense, dark lawn, but it requires water, though probably less than traditional turf grasses. Recycled concrete, flagstone, decomposed granite or other inorganic surfaces can also be used for a low maintenance garden area that takes foot traffic. Permeable, inorganic surfaces reduce urban runoff that is responsible for coastal pollution.

Read more about tuft substitutes.