Butterfly & Pollinator Picnics

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Asclepias speciosa

Winsome West Coast Natives

Yesterday, March duly arrived with chilly, wild winds, but now skies are blue and the temperature is finally rising; we may even hit 50 degrees today! As I’m clearing the garden of fading foliage and tumbling stalks, I’m keeping an eye out for sign of sleeping butterflies and bees. The bumbles are already waking up, nuzzling nectar from Oregon grape, flowering currants, and early cherries. Some of the overwintered kale is starting to bloom and though I cut most back to promote luxuriant side shoots, I always leave a few to flower for the early pollinators. I’ve found the flowers of all greens and herbs to be highly attractive to a pleasing variety of pollinators, from natives to European honeybees. Even so, I recognize that native critters prefer native plants (reasonably enough), so I’m planting more PNW natives every year, including nectar and fodder plants that support butterflies; might as well give those dratted Cabbage Whites some competition!

My tiny lot lacks room for a pollinator meadow, but even a single plant of native species is clearly a draw, as any sunny day demonstrates. Though my new neighborhood has been developed for over 60 years, a pleasing number of natives still appear, from that encroaching Oregon grape (hard to control in a small space) to the lovely bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa), with its lacy, silvery green foliage and tender pink blossoms, which remind me of party dresses from England’s Regency period. A neighbor and I share a redtwig dogwood, another terrific pollinator pleaser and a host plant for Spring Azures, Coppers, Hairstreaks and Blue butterflies. This spreading shrub definitely needs some restraining to keep in bounds but I love the glowing red stems in winter and the cheerful, chirping birds it shelters in spring.

Notable Natives For Butterflies

Even small gardens like mine have room for some Coast Rock Cress (Arabis blepharophylla). It’s mainly found along rocky sea coasts in its native California but has long been popular in Europe, where numerous color forms have been selected and named over the years. This cute little cress makes neat mounds of soft green foliage studded with deliciously fragrant, rosy flowers in spring, rich in nectar that will attract flocks of Orange Tip and other butterflies. Inland, this sweetie needs more moisture than in coastal areas, as well as some protection from hot afternoon sun.

I’m also fond of pussytoes, adorable little meadow plants that provide nectar for a number of native pollinators as well as fodder and shelter for Painted Lady, Angelwing, Fritillary and Checkerspot butterflies. The West Coast boasts a number of native Pussytoes, and I’m growing Antennaria dioica (now called A.d. var. corymbosa) partly because it’s endangered in Washington State. Still fairly common in California, this tidy little perennial makes a pretty and popular addition to any pollinator meadow or butterfly way stations. Another aster cousin, silvery little Pussytoes thrives in meadows and open woodland settings as well as in gardens.

The Toughies Can Take It

Another persistent native that pops up on its own is Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea). Ideal for rough areas and newly planted pollinator meadows, it tolerates poor and polluted soils, drought, and almost total neglect. Native across North American and Asia, this tough little perennial aster cousin is an important host plant for Painted Lady, Angelwing, Fritillary and Checkerspot butterflies. The stems and foliage undersides are covered with silvery fuzz and the slim stems are tipped with clusters of small chartreuse flowers densely surrounded with papery white bracts. Though too often scorned as a weed, I personally enjoy seeing it alive with pollinators in summer, and flower arrangers appreciate the dried flower heads, which remain handsome for months and are often used in dried flower wreaths.

Perennials meadow cress (Cardamine pratensis) has made its way around the world, with circumpolar distribution, so no surprise to find that it’s another toughie that can make itself at home in a wide range of situations. It has plenty of kin throughout the Pacific Northwest and into Northern California, all of them highly attractive to pollinators and valuable host plants for butterflies, including Sulfers, Whites and Orange Tips. The small flowers are cute rather than gorgeous but they get way more bee and butterfly visits than bigger, gaudier blooms can boast. Meadow cress thrives best in moist meadows and in gardens with decent soil and regular watering.

Monarch Munchies

By now, pretty much everyone knows that if we want to save the Monarch butterflies, we have to put some effort into planting their hosts. The West Coast has a number of native milkweeds, including Asclepias incarnata, A. speciosa, and A. tuberosa, all of which will support a number of native pollinators. Thus, I think they’re worth planting whether or not any wandering Monarchs might be passing through. West Coast Monarch visits have been in the decline but last year saw a truly remarkable upswing, largely thanks to a band of devoted gardeners in and around Brookings, Oregon, who preserved and nurtured a number of Monarchs, some of which turned out to be exceptionally prolific moms, each laying hundreds of eggs over time. Rather than leaving things to chance, local advocates collected all the eggs they found and hand raised the caterpillars on home grown milkweed. When the local gardens and butterfly way stations ran out of milkweed, gardeners throughout the region drove in buckets of leafy stems by the carload, keeping the baby boomers alive. Banded butterflies from these few original gardens were tracked into California and all concerned are hopeful that their efforts can make a positive difference in turning the tide.

Though not native to the PNW, I’ve been thrilled to see butterflies feasting on the nectar of Angelica gigas, a splendid Korean carrot cousin with huge, wine purple heads like Queen Anne’s lace on steroids. A short lived perennial, it self sows generously and provides a welcome uprising note with stalks that climb 4-6 feet into the air. The flowers are extremely attractive to many pollinators, including swallowtail butterflies, as are the equally lovely if smaller and lower growing blossoms of colorful Dara carrots, with wine red, raspberry or plum colored umbels. Even as I’m planting, I’m enjoying the hum and buzz of busy pollinators in my imagination; few things are more marvelous than a garden alive with the lively presence of pollinators and the beautiful flutterings of butterflies. Onward, right?

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