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Creating Native and Habitat Gardens


Creating Native and Habitat Gardens

By Jana Mariposa

I have been installing Native and Habitat gardens for over 45 years, and have found that attractive Butterflies and other Pollinators is a very worthwhile and rewarding endeavor.  It is vitally important to restore habitat that may have been eliminated by construction for the ‘original inhabitants’ in our yards.   Even a tiny amount of garden space can provide a home and refuge for many kinds of Birds, Insects, and Butterflies.  While it is not difficult to attract Butterflies, it is more complicated to encourage them to stay, raise a family, and come back again the following year.  In the case of Butterflies, it is essential to provide both nectar/pollen (forage) sources and also ‘larval food plants’, about which all Caterpillars are much more particular.   Caterpillars do not to anything but eat for their entire existence is a transitional phase leading up to their magical transformational snooze in their sleeping bag cocoons to emerge completely transformed as flying flowers !  One of the most astonishing of Nature’s Many Miracles, I’d say.

Most Butterflies and other pollinators (Hummingbirds, Bees, Wasps, other beneficial insects) can forage on a large palette of flowers;  however, most Caterpillars require certain families, sometimes  up to 6 or 6 genera, but sometimes only a single species, as in the case of Monarchs (Asclepias sp., Milkweeds) or our native Dutchman’s Pipevine Swallowtail (Aristolochia californica, Dutchman’s Pipe Vine).   So, depending on which Butterflies you are trying to attract, it is necessary to figure out what the Caterpillar needs to eat in order to make that great leap of faith.

One of the most crucial factors besides the larval food plants, is to provide forage for the Butterflies both early and late in the season.   Around Sonoma County, not many plants bloom in the middle of winter, but in some protected locations, Abutilons will bloom all winter, all year actually, and are beloved by the Hummingbirds and other pollinators. There is  also a plant called Sweet Box, Sarcoccoca, ( which I always thought boring, until I smelled its honey-scented flowers in January, ) that is very much visited by insects in the cold months.   It is evergreen, drought tolerant, and can take both sun and shade.  

Some of our more important Native shrubs for early bloom are Manzanita (Arctostaphylos), which range from a few inches to 15’ tall;  most require sun but a few will grow under Oak trees.   These are evergreen and are important to all our native insects, Hummingbirds, and HoneyBees.

We have over 30 kinds of Ceanothus, Wild Lilac, in California, and even more ‘cultivars’ available in nurseries;  again , they range from inches to 20’ in height, and are a favorite of the native Bumblebees;  they are also the larval food plant for the Echo Blue.   Ceanothus are evergreen, have beautiful fragrant flowers, sometimes twice in the year; they are drought-tolerant once established, and can take full sun to partial shade (with good drainage).   They are one of the most important early spring nectar sources for our native Bumblebees.

Another of my favorite shrubs is Flowering Currant, Ribes sanguineum;  it is a shrub or small tree, can be pruned to almost any shape, takes sun but appreciates some shade, isn’t picky about soil, and blooms in mid-late February.   In addition to the insects, the Humminbirds love this plant.   It also has golden fall color and makes edible berries for the Birdies.   I like to plant Alum Root,  Heuchera ‘Old la Rochette’ around my Currants as they begin to bloom around the time the Currants are finished, and continue making everyone happy and well fed.

After this display, you have of course already planted your wildflowers right before the first rains in the fall, and now have a splendid assortment of Globe Gilia, Tricolor Gilia, Baby Blue Eyes, Chinese Houses, Tidy Tips, California Poppy, Clarkias, etc.  to carry through to the beginning of summer, and the glory of summer flowers.

Some of the most attractive summer annuals are Zinnias, Tithonias, Cosmos, Sunflowers (you will have much more success if you grow these yourself from seed, rather than try to transplant the sad, forced-to-bloom-while-children plants that most nurseries offer).   Like people, they usually can’t recover from a traumatic childhood.  If you have problems with slugs, snails, earwigs, or other unseen munchers, grow them in flats and transplant into the garden; but be vigilant the first few nights and go out with your flashlight to protect them from  predation.

Perennials that are reliable as nursery transplants include:  Echinacea, Gaillardia, Lantana, Hummingbird Mint (Agastache sp., also good for tea), Bee Balm (Monarda sp.), Sages (Salvia sp.), Lupines, Verbenas, and Asters, which are very important for late fall blossoms.    California Fuchsia (Zauschneria or now Epilobium sp.)  are hardy, drought tolerant perennials that come in over a dozen sizes and attract insects and Hummingbirds.  Our native Monkeyflowers (Mimulus and Diplacus sp.)  can be either evergreen shrubs or perennials, take some shade or sun, and are larval food plants for Checkerspots and Buckeyes.    Yarrow also attracts a myriad of beneficial insects.   It comes in many pretty colors, but it seems that the native white form is the most favored.

In Sonoma County, we have 4 kinds of Swallowtail butterflies.   The Tiger swallowtail, which nectars on most of the aformentioned flowers and lays its eggs on Willows, Poplars, Alders, and Sycamore.   The Pale Swallowtail prefers Coffeberry (Rhamnus sp.), Creambush (Holodiscus discolor), or Hollyleaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia).   The Anise Swallowtail utilizes most plants in the Carrot (Umbelliferae) family, such as Angelica, Cow Parsnip, Queen Anne’s Lace, Parsley (let these go to flower for zillions of beneficial insects to feast upon),.   Perhaps their favorite plant, not a native, is Fennel, which can get seriously pushy in the garden.  The Bronze form is lovely and not so invasive, but you can just cut off the faded flowers before they go to seed.   Just be careful not to harm any chrysalids that may be sleeping amongst the stems. 

The Dutchman’s Pipevine Swallowtail is our beautiful, metallic blue-black butterrfly that has almost unbelievable caterpillars that are also blue-black and have bright orange spikes sticking up........If you have never seen them, try to visit Louise Hallberg’s Garden.........or grow your own Dutchman’s Pipe Vines in your trees;  they will find you.   I have several Aristolochias in my garden that the butterflies had not yet discovered, so I asked my friend Kathleen to ‘emigrate’ a few of the hundreds in her yard to my vine for my birthday !  Maybe my best birthday present ever !  

Planting a mixture of native perennials, shrubs, annuals, and your favorite ornamental plants (which of course you treat strictly organically) will provide you with a lifetime of entertainment, beauty, and magic that will give back to the Natural world.

Jana can be contacted at for Milkweeds, Pipevines, and other useful and beautiful plants.