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The Munch Bunch

A Sherman Oaks Garden Is Planted With Caterpillars and Butterflies in Mind

August 01, 2004|Susan Heeger

Instead of anguishing over a chewed garden plant, Trish and Chris Meyer consider the tattered leaves a snack for a butterfly-in-the-making. While most gardeners measure success in dozens of roses or baskets of lettuce, the Sherman Oaks couple tote up munched plants and worry about running short. Their greenhouse, which Chris built from a kit, is full of seedlings that can be whisked in to fill gaps in the garden, lest one caterpillar go hungry.

"We like a garden that's a movie, not a still life," says Chris, who works with Trish in their firm, CyberMotion, which does animated imagery for film and TV title sequences and other applications. The two, who have a home office, view their yard as an environment for living things.

The hill behind the Meyers' house had been swathed in ivy and vinca, which they replaced with salvias and other bird-attracting plants. They noticed that butterflies came too, so they did some research and planted milkweed, a monarch favorite. Once monarchs showed up in numbers, they needed more milkweed than they could find in nurseries. When they did find it, it often had been sprayed with pesticides--a butterfly garden no-no. Frustrated, they grew their own milkweed from seed they had collected from pesticide-free plants bought at botanic garden sales.

The Meyers soon branched out to grow other butterfly-friendly plants: native cobweb thistles, ashyleaf buckwheat, deerweed and fairy duster. "Caterpillars have very particularized diets," Trish says. "They won't eat roses or even butterfly bush." In fact, the creatures will starve if they can't find the plants they're supposed to eat: inconsequential-looking greens such as deerweed--favored by orange sulphur butterflies, gray hairstreaks and silvery blues--or monkey flower, tasty to buckeyes and checkerspots. The adult females of these species have taste receptors in their feet that detect the correct plants for their little ones. When eggs hatch on the leaves, the babies stay put and start eating.

Ingesting toxic milkweed and certain other plants makes some caterpillars bitter-tasting to predators, yet this safeguard isn't enough. Lacewing and ladybug larvae, for example, gobble monarch eggs; wasps and birds eat caterpillars and mice devour the chrysalis. So Chris built a mesh-sided "caterpillar condo," to which the Meyers transfer eggs, larvae and the odd chrysalis whenever they find them, tending each until a butterfly matures. Inside, babies mow down their lunch: The spiny fritillaries find the passionflower; striped swallowtails go for tauschia; the monarchs stick to milkweed. "We released 500 monarchs last year," boasts Trish, estimating a 95% success rate in the condo versus 10% outdoors.

In addition to plants for butterfly food, the Meyers grow nectar producers to nourish visiting adults. These include brightly massed wallflowers, Mexican sunflowers and Verbena bonariensis. According to Trish, "Butterflies have bad eyesight. They need a lot of each plant to spot it." Some of the best attractors, and most willing growers, are Southern California native plants that once drew flocks of butterflies but have dwindled with land development. "What we and others are doing," Chris explains, "is restoring habitat one garden at a time."

Wherever possible, they locate sun-loving butterfly plants in full light, which also benefits the cold-blooded, heat-seeking insects. They offer them rocks with indentations, which gather water and sandy dirt to satisfy the butterflies' need for moisture and minerals. And they don't tidy up too obsessively, leaving brush piles in which butterflies can seek shelter during winter, when many types hibernate in one developmental stage or other till spring. "The only way they're going to survive," says Trish, "is if we invite them back in and give them what they need."

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Resource Guide

For information, see the L.A. chapter of the North American Butterfly Assn., www.naba.org/chapters/nabala; "Butterflies Through Binoculars: The West," by Jeffrey Glassberg (Oxford University Press, 2001); "The Family Butterfly Book," by Rick Mikula (Storey Books, 2000).

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