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All aflutter

Butterflies are arriving for their annual show. And the right blooms will draw them into your garden.

June 26, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Summer begins with the appearance of the butterflies. June gloom burns off and suddenly there they are, swirling past, on their way to court, mate and frolic.

For the most enraptured gardeners, the spectacle is so thrilling that they've ripped out plants that they like and re-landscaped with plants that butterflies need. Where once they fought caterpillars with insecticides and thistles with weed killers, now they coddle worms and pamper weeds in an effort to nurture the splendid winged adults.

They are part of a growing breed: butterfly gardeners. For them, butterflies are more than an air show. They are a measure of the most profound seasonal tempos. No animal's survival and habits are more directly bound up with the life of plants.

As with so many horticultural trends, butterfly gardening came out of England. It first took hold here in the early 1970s, led by the Xerces Society and the Sierra Club, says Julian Donahue, assistant curator emeritus of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and for 23 years the man in charge of the moth and butterfly collection. By 1976, Donahue was publishing articles in botanical journals urging L.A.'s gardeners to create habitats.

Four years ago, these morphed into a Natural History Museum booklet, "Butterfly Gardening in Southern California" and is now the starter book for beginners. Donahue meets for an interview on a chilly, gray day that, as the calendar has it, is the first official day of summer. He expects a good show of butterflies this year, but so far, they are nowhere to be seen.

"Butterflies are coldblooded. They need heat to fly," he says.

So we gather in the butterfly house of the museum. As he reaches for a monarch, gently gripping it by its body so it doesn't fly away (don't try this at home), an audience of children gather around him. They can smell a good teacher. Plus, he has what seem God-like privileges: He's the only person who the museum staff allows to handle the insects.

"The original butterfly gardens only had nectar plants," he says. "These are great for butterflies. But then people realized that butterflies don't materialize out of thin air. You really have to have what the butterfly caterpillars eat."

To know what to plant, it helps to understand the life cycle of butterflies, he says. They are first deposited onto plants as eggs, out of which hatch tiny caterpillars. The first thing an emerging caterpillar eats is its shell. It then proceeds to eat 20 times its body weight in leaves. These little "self-stuffing sausages" will shed their casings five times before it's time to transform yet again, into pupa.

Pupa are intermediate beings, not caterpillars, not butterflies, but tightly packaged gobs of protoplasm called chrysalids. These can dangle from a plant or the eave of a house, or nestle among leaves and grass. Only the sharp eyes of entomologists, kids and predators can usually spot them: 150 million years of evolution has equipped them to look almost exactly like dead leaves. Inside, winged butterflies will be forming.

When adult butterflies first emerge from these casings, they are drowsy and damp. This is the time that they are most likely to settle on us, pose for a photograph, bask on a flower. Once they are on the wing, it's all business.

"If they're males, they're looking for females," Donahue says. "If they're females, they're looking for food plants where they can lay their eggs."

Butterflies are promiscuous, but also strict practitioners of family planning. The females will mate repeatedly, then store the sperm separately from the eggs. They only fertilize the eggs once they've found a spot suitable for their young.

Finding the right plant can amount to an exhaustive shopping trip. Most butterflies will lay eggs on only one or two types of plants. Anise swallowtails like fennel; California sisters, coastal live oaks; marine blues, 'Cape Plumbago' and locoweed; red admirals, nettles; monarchs milkweed; and Gulf fritillaries, passion vines.

How do these little bugs find the exact plants that they need in our big crazy urban grid? "They're really good botanists," says Donahue. "They can detect a food plant by infrared radiation of the plant or by the smell. Every plant has a chemical signal."

When butterflies become extinct, it's usually because their all-important caterpillar plants have fallen in the path of development. Reports of one extinction, happily, were greatly exaggerated. The Palos Verdes blue, whose eggs can only develop on a rare breed of locoweed on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, was recently rediscovered on military land. Euphoria was such that Chris Nagano, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a colleague of Donahue's, even saw a two-star general out helping to restore the dune.

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