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Flights of fancy

A horticulturist transforms her South Pasadena garden into a butterfly habitat.

By Ilsa Setziol 03/01/2011

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When Barbara Eisenstein and her husband, Jim, moved into their South Pasadena home a dozen years ago, it was like many in the neighborhood: an architecturally significant home — a 1910 craftsman — surrounded by a fairly banal garden. The grounds were mostly lawn, albeit studded with mature trees. A few birds perched in the oak, but it wasn’t the miniature nature preserve that encircles their home today.  
 
Over the years, the lawn lost ground and was supplanted by wildlife-supporting native shrubs, including ceanothus and sages, and herbaceous plants such as monkey flower, penstemons and yarrow. Today the garden pulses with vibrant colors, bird song and the slurping and munching of lizards, caterpillars, butterflies and other small dinner guests.
 
Eisenstein is a horticulturist –– formerly outreach coordin-ator at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont –– who lectures on native plants and blogs about her garden at wildsuburbia.blogspot.com. She has photographed swallowtails, painted ladies, monarchs, Gulf fritillaries and other butterflies feasting on her plants. Her photos and writings encourage people to examine native gardens closely. “The plants are very delicate and beautiful,” she says, “but sometimes you have to stop and look, even take out a magnifying lens.”
 
Eisenstein says butterflies aren’t just pretty; they entice people to observe and understand nature. “You’re busy, walking by, but if a monarch or a swallowtail flies by, you’re likely to stop.”
 
Eisenstein’s knowledge of butterflies evolved with her garden.  She’d see one, then dash to a field guide to identify it and determine its host plant. She learned that adult butterflies will sip from a variety of petite flowers, native and non-native, but caterpillars eat only certain leaves. “The butterflies, in most cases, are looking for specific plants or groups of plants on which they can lay their eggs,” says Brent Karner, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County.  “You can plant as many nectar plants as you want, but butterflies are only going to be in your area and stick around if you have the plant on which the caterpillar feeds.” 
 
In Eisenstein’s garden, adult giant swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) — flashy yellow and black butterflies –– might sip from her sages, but their young chomp on citrus. (The abundance of cultivated citrus in Southern California has prompted this once rare butterfly to proliferate widely.) 
 
So many native plants support butterflies that planting a variety, even without a lot of planning, will likely create a stage for butterfly ballets. For gardeners new to natives, Eisenstein recommends easy-to-grow cea-nothus Ray Hartman, Verberna lilacina, mountain penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus “Margarita BOP”) and yarrows.  “The first summer they need some water to get going,” she notes, but after that, “none of them want a lot of summer water, so try to find part of your garden where you’re not going to water as much.” 
 
Connie Day, whose Santa Monica garden is a certified monarch way station, advises placing butterfly plants in sunny spots. “They don’t put their eggs on plants in the shade, because it’s not warm enough for them to grow,” she says.
If you’re not up for a major redesign, try native and other butterfly plants in containers — and do provide water year-round. “Even if you just have a patio where you can put a few pots,” Eisenstein says, “everybody can do something to make the world a little healthier.” 
 
After you’ve started your butterfly plants, just sit back and observe. Don’t spray them (duh!), and look closely for teeny butterfly larvae. “If you see something you think is a bug or a worm, I would leave it there,” advises Day. “That little ‘worm’ just might be the makings of a monarch.” 

Ilsa Setziol is a freelance environment reporter who blogs at ramblingla.com.

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