Butterfly gardening relieves stress, provides homes for declining species

ZACK ZOLMER / AGGIE

UC Davis students, professors provide butterfly gardening tips, tricks

Butterfly gardening can be a relaxing and rewarding experience for people across all ages and backgrounds. For students, it may seem like a hassle and unwanted expense to find the right materials and proper equipment for gardening. However, with enough information and many resources to consult on campus, students can still tend to a small garden.

Butterflies are majestic and intricate creatures, especially when provided the chance to look at them up close without worrying about one flying off immediately. They are also pollinators, which are vital to keeping ecosystems running.

One of the most important aspects to keep in mind when butterfly gardening is knowing the environment, as well as the types of plants that will thrive and attract butterflies. Many guides exist on the internet, but do not necessarily pertain to the Davis and Sacramento areas and weather patterns. If space is a problem in a dorm or apartment, getting a window box on a balcony with enough sunlight and the correct plant can still provide a great habitat for butterflies.

“If you plant the right resources, they’ll stop to feed and then you can watch, photograph and enjoy them,” said Art Shapiro, a UC Davis professor of evolution and ecology. “It’s probably a lot easier to provide nectar sources than to provide host plants. The nectar resources are quite pretty, while the host plants mostly are not — they’re weeds. I find weeds to be quite attractive, but not everyone does.”

Host plants are for breeding, while nectar plants provide food and nutrients. Shapiro recommends lantanas, buddleias and asters, as they are easily obtainable, extremely common in Davis and attractive to both humans and butterflies. Some of the most well-known and common butterfly species in the Sacramento Valley include monarchs, pipevine swallowtails, cabbage whites, gulf fritillaries and California dogfaces, which are California’s national insect.

While it’s exciting to set up a butterfly garden, newcomers tend to make many common mistakes.

“Number one: don’t expect to get rare or endangered species,” Shapiro said. “You will get what’s available in your neighborhood. Number two: keep seasonality in mind. That is to say, here in the Valley, most butterflies are active in the summer and the fall. In the [Sierra] Foothills, nearly everything is active in the spring. If you have mainly spring flowering plants here in Davis, you won’t get much. You want to plant for what’s actually flying.”

Consulting an expert or refining searches, as well as hearing personal stories from others, helps immensely when first starting out.

“People, when they start doing butterfly gardening and they plant a host plant like milkweed or cassia or fennel, may see the plant getting destroyed,” said Peter Varas, a fourth-year sustainable agriculture and food systems major. “They freak out, but [the plant being ‘destroyed’ is] a good thing because it means the caterpillars are eating it. A lot of the time, once [the plant has] stripped down, you can cut it back, and it’ll regrow.”

For beginners, Varas recommends milkweed and Mexican sunflower as host plants, which both attract monarchs. He also stated the importance of going to a pre-established butterfly garden on campus and learning from what others have already done.

“Something I’d encourage people to do who are interested in butterfly gardening is to go to the ecological garden here at UC Davis right next to the Student Farm,” Varas said. “It’s a learning space about gardening, and there’s people there all the time who are friendly and willing to talk to you about butterflies and plants.”

The Student Farm, which includes the ecological farm and market farm, is a 20-acre area that provides a space for students to learn about and practice sustainable agriculture. Nearly every inch of the Student Farm is covered by a wide variety of plants and species.

“I feel like [the Student Farm] is a really special spot on campus,” said Katharina Ullmann, the director of the Student Farm. “If you’re just having a coffee at the MU or eating your lunch on the Quad, you might not even know that just a 5 to 10 minute walk away, you can access a space like this that may not seem as ‘wild’ as the Arboretum, but still has all sorts of wildlife and plants.”

Another resource on campus for people interested in butterfly gardening, or more generally in horticulture or sustainable agriculture, is the Arboretum.

“When I first started working at the Arboretum, there was only four of us,” said Ellen Zagory, the director of public horticulture for the Arboretum and public garden. “But now the Arboretum has grown, and so has the campus.”

While the Arboretum is home to many different species of plants, trees, small animals and insects, there are still concerns about the declining number of butterflies and other animals important to the ecosystem.

“When I moved to Davis during my first full year in 1972, I routinely got 20 to 30 species of butterflies in my own garden,” Shapiro said. “Now I’m lucky to get a dozen.”

For example, the monarch, one of the most iconic butterfly species and a symbol for immigrants all over the United States, has become the centerpiece of conservation efforts.

“The monarchs have been declining for the past decade, which is due to a number of factors,” Varas said. “It’s mostly loss of habitat and that’s because of people, who are mostly in the midwest, who are planting more corn and soy, and taking out these native milkweed plants that are part of the monarchs’ migration route. Even if it’s just one [plant], you’re doing something to provide habitat for monarchs.”

Though numbers are dwindling, endangered butterflies and other pollinators can still be protected.

“There are three things that people can do,” Ullmann said. “One, to provide food and nesting resources or host plants. Second, limit the use of pesticides, and the third is to talk to other people about them. If everything looks like a flying bug, then you don’t know the cool stories behind those insects and what the services they provide look like.”

Shapiro has a page on his website outlining plants perfect for attracting butterflies in the Sacramento Valley area.

The Arboretum’s fall plant sale on Nov. 4 provides the perfect opportunity to apply these ideas to create your very own butterfly garden. For the upcoming seasons, there will be spring plant sales at the Arboretum, where you can find a relaxing ambiance and plants perfect for attracting spring and summer butterflies and other pollinators.

“I think that getting outside, being in nature, and giving yourself a break is important,” Zagory said. “It’s a lot of pressure being a student and trying to get good grades. It’s pretty relentless. It’s refreshing to get outside and go look at some flowers, take a walk and give yourself a chance to recover. It’s very healing.”

 

Written By: Jack Carrillo Concordia — science@theaggie.org