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GARDENING : Cultivating Butterfly Harvest

October 27, 1990|SHARON COHOON | Sharon Cohoon is a regular contributor to Home Design

Lantana, milkweed and passion flower: Cultivate them at your own risk. These plants are bound to entice butterflies into your yard, and if that happens, you're in danger of being seduced.

Watch one monarch hatch from its jade-colored, gold-sprinkled case after feeding as a caterpillar in your garden, and you're a lepidopterist in the making. Next thing you know, you'll be altering your entire landscape to accommodate these ephemeral creatures.

You'll replace your carefully cultivated dichondra with Bermuda grass to attract fiery skippers and plant willows to host Western tiger swallowtails and mourning cloaks. Then you'll let a few corners go wild with nettles and chickweed to promote red admirals and encourage painted ladies.

You might even engineer a mud puddle for thirsty butterflies who like to congregate around favorite water holes on sunny afternoons like bar patrons during happy hour.

You've lost your garden and created a habitat.

You can see it happening to Janet Warter. The Huntington Beach gardener purchased one milkweed plant from Heard's Country Gardens last year.

"I didn't buy the plant to attract butterflies," she says. "I bought it because milkweed is an Eastern wildflower, and I'm from Pennsylvania; I thought it would be a touch of home."

But several monarch butterflies found Warter's solitary plant almost immediately and laid eggs, which soon turned into voracious caterpillars. "I kept running back to Heard's to buy more plants to keep them fed," she says, "and now I've got a little grove of milkweed in my back yard."

Warter has seen a number of migrating monarchs flitting through her garden this fall and already observed one caterpillar grow large enough to pupate, but she is anticipating a lot more action. "It's still a little early," she says. "November should be better."

John W. Johnson, a veteran butterfly gardener, was not surprised to hear of Warter's prompt success. Though Johnson and his wife live in a retirement home in Santa Barbara now, the garden at their former home in Corona del Mar used to be a veritable butterfly factory.

"As long as I lived there, I had milkweed plants growing," Johnson says. "They're a perennial and reseed themselves. Once you've got them, you've got them forever. I raised a winter generation of monarchs on those plants for 40 years."

Getting Gulf fritillaria to your garden is even easier than tempting monarchs, Johnson says. "If you want to attract a large butterfly to your garden, plant a passion flower vine," he says. "That will do it."

The white-petaled, purple-crowned passiflora is such a magnet to the bright-orange, tropical butterflies that it is hard to keep the plant alive its first year.

Encouraged by her success in attracting monarchs with milkweed, Warter planted a passion vine last year. "The caterpillars ate it down to sticks," she says. "But I'm trying again this year."

If you put netting over the plant the first year or two to keep butterflies from laying eggs, or pick off the caterpillars by hand so the vine can get a head start, Gulf Fritillaries will not seriously harm the passiflora and will help keep this vigorous grower in line, Johnson says.

"By the end of the summer the caterpillars will pretty much have stripped the vines but they'll recover by the end of winter and leaf out again in the spring," he says. "There aren't many Fritillaries around then so the plant will thrive until late summer when the butterfly population builds up. Then down goes the vine again."

Visiting the Shipley Nature Center in Huntington Beach Central Park is a convincing demonstration that passiflora and Gulf fritillaria can coexist. The passion vine, which has become a bit of a pest there, engulfs some of the center's trees. Yet in years when the Fritillary was particularly plentiful the same vines that now smother full-size trees were defoliated, according to park ranger Dave Winkler.

"It's very prolific vine, especially in the wild," he says. "I'm glad we've got the caterpillars to keep it in check. I wish we had more."

If you like having butterflies around through their entire life span--from egg through caterpillar to chrysalis to adult on the wing--another plant to encourage, according to Johnson, is Soleirolia soleirolii.

Soleirolia, commonly known as baby's tears, is a good ground cover, especially for damp patches, and it also attracts a handsome, black butterfly with scarlet bands called the red admiral.

"We had that moss growing along the north side of our house in Corona del Mar, and we were visited by red admirals the whole time we lived there," Johnson says. "They'd hang their chrysalis on the wall, and we'd watch them emerge. There were always some around."

Johnson's garden also included fennel, food for the larvae of the black and yellow anise swallowtail, and snapdragons, host to a buff-colored butterfly with multicolored eyespots called the buckeye.

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