Tale of Two Butterfly Gardens

We visited two butterfly gardens on a recent trip to Santa Cruz.  The two gardens take different approaches to providing butterflies with what they need.  The different strategies contrast the nativist approach with an approach that emphasizes diversity.  The more diverse approach seems to be more successful in attracting butterflies, at least in the case of these two gardens that are located within a few miles of one another, in very similar climate conditions.

Natural Bridges State Park is the home of a eucalyptus grove that provides shelter for overwintering monarchs from November to February.  Only 550 monarchs roosted in the trees in November 2020.  The population of migrating monarchs in California increased greatly in 2021 and the site at Natural Bridges was no exception.  2,100 monarchs were counted at Natural Bridges in November 2021.  

Signs explain why eucalyptus trees provide the ideal shelter for overwintering monarch butterflies.  They shelter the butterflies from wind and rain.  Their canopies are open to the sunlight that provides the heat needed to keep the monarchs active and able to feed.  Eucalyptus are blooming when the butterflies are roosting, providing the nectar the butterflies need to sustain them.

Remarkably, signs also inform visitors that other non-native plants, such as English ivy, provide monarchs with the food they need to live through the winter months:

Natural Bridges State Park also puts its money where its mouth is.  Rangers have installed a butterfly garden in front of the ranger station that is an eclectic mix of native and non-native plants.  Many are non-native favorites of butterflies, such as Buddleia (butterfly bush), cosmos, and Scabiosa (pin cushion flower).  Both Buddleia and Scabiosa have been designated as “invasive” by the California Invasive Plant Council and are eradicated with herbicides by many public land managers.   Natural Bridges State Park seems to be an exception to that unfortunate rule, possibly because they have observed what butterflies actually use and need.

Butterfly garden, Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz

Proving that point, here is an Western Tiger swallowtail butterfly nectaring on Scabiosa at Natural Bridges.

The Flip Side:  UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden

The second butterfly garden we visited was in the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden, just a few miles away from Natural Bridges State Park.  The butterfly garden at the UCSC botanic garden is exclusively native and the narrative on its signs is consistent with the nativist agenda:

There isn’t much blooming in July in a garden of exclusively California natives.

No monarch butterflies were observed in the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden during their 2021 California migration.

The UCSC botanic garden is well worth a visit.  Its focus is the flora of Mediterranean climates:  California, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.  The garden is an opportunity to observe that many of our favorite plants come from other Mediterranean climates and observing them in July helps us to understand that planting a diverse, drought-tolerant garden can provide year-around blooms for pollinators and add color to our own gardens:

There’s not much blooming in the California section of the UCSC botanic garden in July.
Protea in the Australian section of the UCSF botanic garden is blooming like mad in July.
This is Bushy Baeckea from Australia, also flowering profusely in the USCS botanic garden in July.
This is the New Zealand section of the UCSC botanic garden.  “Electric Pink” (Cordyline australis) provides the color in this garden.  Our motel in Santa Cruz was landscaped with this stunning plant.

What does the tale of two butterfly gardens tell us?

I hope these pictures speak for themselves, but in case they don’t here’s the point of this post:

  • Butterflies and other pollinators do not care where plants are from.  They are looking for food and shelter.  If non-native plants provide what they need, they will happily use them.
  • Non-native plants from other Mediterranean climates are well-adapted to our climate.  They are also drought-tolerant. 
“Electric Pink” Cordyline australis captures the morning dew on its spikey leaves and funnels the moisture to the roots of the plant.  This is an adaptation to a dry climate. 

Butterfly Bush: An example of the escalating war on non-native plants

The war on so-called “invasive species” continues to escalate.  One of the indicators of this escalation is the recently revised California Invasive Plant Council’s (Cal-IPC) inventory of “invasive” plants.  Nearly 100 plant species were added, a 50% increase in the inventory. 

Scabiosa is one of 87 plants recently added to the inventory of “invasive” plants in California, despite the fact that is isn’t invasive in California. Scabiosa is very useful to bees because it blooms prolifically for much of the year.

More alarming is that most of the additions to the list are not considered “invasive” in California.  Rather, a new category of “potentially” invasive plants was created, based on their behavior elsewhere.  Many of the plants in the new category are considered invasive in Hawaii, a place with a distinctly different climate than California.  Hawaii is a tropical climate, hotter than much of California and wetter and more humid than everywhere in California.

The big increase in the number of plant species now designated as “invasive” in California is a concern partly because of the herbicides that are usually used to eradicate them.  Not only do we lose that plant species in our landscape when it is added to the hit list, we can also expect to see an increase in the use of the herbicides that are used to kill it.

Increased use of herbicides

Native plant advocates are aggressively defending the use of herbicides. Policies and practices are being developed to accommodate increased use of herbicides on our public lands.

East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD) is evaluating its Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), including practices and policies regarding pesticide use.  The first draft of EBMUD’s revised IPM program was made available to the public in July 2017.  The draft adds several new goals to the IPM program:  “habitat protection and restoration,” reducing populations of “invasive plant species,” and “use of alternative vegetation such as native plants.”  EBMUD is the supplier of our drinking water in the East Bay and the quality of the water they supply should be the top—if not the only—priority.  If destroying non-native plants requires greater use of herbicides, that goal contradicts EBMUD’s obligation to providing safe drinking water.

Garlon sprayed on the trail in a San Francisco park. San Francisco Forest Alliance

San Francisco’s IPM program has also changed some policies to accommodate use of herbicides in parks on plants the Natural Resource Division of the parks department considers “invasive.”  The parks department restricts all park access to the established trails in the 33 “natural areas” where non-native plants are eradicated and replaced by native plants.  The new IPM policy permits the spraying of herbicides without posting pesticide application notices in places that are “publicly inaccessible.”  In other words, pesticide application notices are no longer required in the “natural areas” unless herbicides are sprayed on the trails.  One way to reduce the public’s opposition to pesticides is to hide their use and this policy seems designed to do that.

Update:   The San Francisco Forest Alliance (SFFA) has informed me that Chris Geiger, head of San Francisco’s IPM program, has given assurances that the IPM program will no longer offer City departments a blanket exemption to apply herbicides without posting in areas the department considers “publicly inaccessible”.  Previous to this, each land manager was empowered to make their own decisions as to which areas they considered “publicly inaccessible”.  The IPM group did not provide oversight of the decisions or keep records of which areas were exempted.  Now specific exemptions will be issued and recorded on the IPM exemptions webpage.  Chris Geiger reports RPD will not be requesting any posting exemptions.   SFFA is still waiting for formal written documentation of this change.

San Francisco’s IPM Program is also demonstrating its commitment to native plants and the eradication of non-native plants by sponsoring a webinar on October 5th, 2017, featuring Doug Tallamy:  The Plant-Pollinator Connection: Why Pollinators Need Native Plants.”  Tallamy is the academic entomologist who has devoted his career to the promotion of native plants based on his claim that insects at the base of the food web are dependent upon native plants.  He has said in many publications that non-native plants will cause the collapse of our ecosystems.  Many of the statements he makes in support of his dire theory are not accurate.

This post will focus on the intersection of these symptoms of the escalating war on “invasive” plants:  the expansion of California’s inventory of “invasive” plants and the closely associated claim that non-native plants must be eradicated because they compete with the native plants required by wildlife.  We use buddleia, commonly known as butterfly bush, as an example.

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia):  friend or enemy of butterflies?

Monarch nectaring on butterfly bush. butterflybush.com

Buddleia is one of 87 plant species recently added to Cal-IPC’s inventory of “invasive” plant because it is considered invasive outside of California.  Buddleia is called butterfly bush because it produces large quantities of nectar that attract swarms of butterflies.  Since buddleia is very appealing to butterflies, it is popular with gardeners who like to see butterflies in their gardens.

Since buddleia is obviously useful to butterflies and Doug Tallamy claims to be concerned about the welfare of our pollinators, why is he telling gardeners to quit planting buddleia?  His advice is based on the fact that buddleia is considered invasive in some places and his belief that it will eventually be invasive everywhere.  In fact, that’s his belief about all non-native plants:  they may not be invasive now, but he predicts that eventually they all will be invasive.

Secondly, Tallamy argues that although buddleia provides food for butterflies, it is not a host plant for butterflies.  The host plant is where butterflies lay their eggs and where the caterpillar feeds when the eggs hatch.  The choice of host plant species is much smaller than the number of food plant species available to butterflies, but it is not as small as Tallamy thinks it is.  Tallamy does not seem to realize that many plants are chemically similar, which enables butterflies to make a transition from a native plant to a chemically similar non-native plant.  Here in California, many butterfly species have made that transition and a few butterfly species are dependent upon abundant non-native plants that are available year-around because their original native host plant is dormant much of the year.

Buddleia “starves” butterflies?

This is Tallamy’s apocalyptic prediction about the fate of butterflies if gardeners continue to plant buddleia:

“It’s no exaggeration to say that when you choose which plants to include in your garden, even the beautiful, seemingly harmless butterfly bush, you’re deciding if members of your community’s local food web will be nourished or unintentionally starved.  And to get to that mind frame, which is a way of thinking that truly benefits nature, including its butterflies, you’re going to have to come to a harsh realization: You need to stop planting the butterfly bush—forever.” (1)

Ironically, this harsh verdict on buddleia was published by a blog entitled, “Organic Life.”  Is Organic Life unaware of the fact that the most widely used method of eradicating non-native plants is spraying herbicides?  The consequence of adding more plant species to the long list of “bad plants,” is more pesticide use.  That’s not very “organic.”

What amoral, selfish gardener would plant buddleia in their garden after such a severe scolding?  First, let’s stop and think about the logic of the claim that buddleia will disrupt the “food web” and starve butterflies.  Since buddleia is an excellent source of nectar and swarms of butterflies are observed nectaring on buddleia, how could we be “starving” them?  Professor Art Shapiro (UC Davis), our local butterfly expert, said when asked about this article, “The ‘disrupting food webs’ argument is ludicrous. It’s equivalent to saying that if you eat popcorn rather than apples, you’re contributing to unemployment in the apple-picking industry.”

Is buddleia a host plant for butterflies?

Now let’s consider the argument that we should not plant buddleia in our gardens because although it feeds butterflies, it isn’t their host plant where they lay their eggs.  The problem with that argument is that it isn’t true!!

Checkerspot laying eggs on buddleia, near Santa Barbara. Photo by Marc Kummel

In 1940, Charles M. Dammers reported that the Variable Checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona) “can use” buddleia as a substitute for its usual native host in southern California desert-mountain areas, based on a laboratory study of the larval stages of its caterpillar on buddleia.   In 2001, chemical analysis of buddleia found that it is chemically similar to the native host of the checkerspot, which confirmed the potential for such a substitution.

The first actual observation of checkerspot butterflies breeding spontaneously and successfully on buddleia was in Mariposa County, California in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  “Mariposa” is Spanish for butterfly.  Mariposa County was named by an early Spanish explorer who saw many butterflies near Chowchilla.

Checkerspot bred successfully on buddleia in 2005 and in subsequent years.  This colony of checkerspot on buddleia was reported in 2009:  “We conclude that buddleia davidii [and other species of buddleia] represents yet another exotic plant adopted as a larval host by a native California butterfly and that other members of the genus may also be used as the opportunity arises.” (2)

Variable checkerspot. Photo by Roger Hall

More recently, a gardener in Mendocino County also reported the use of buddleia as the host plant of checkerspot:

“By now I am questioning how it was that butterfly larvae were using my butterfly bush as a host plant, completely against everything I’d ever heard. How was this possible? I emailed Art Shapiro, a very well-known butterfly expert and author, sending him a pic. He wrote back to confirm they were butterfly larvae, but added, ‘These are not mourning cloak butterflies. They are checkerspots. And the only time I’m aware this has happened [like, ever, except one in a lab in 1940…] is in Mariposa County.’” (3)

Bad rap for non-native plants

When the native plant movement began some 30 years ago, native plant advocates promoted their agenda with a straight-forward claim that they are superior to non-native plants.  The public was initially resistant to that argument because non-native plants have been around for a long time and people have become fond of them.

Native plant advocates began to fabricate stories about the evils of non-native plants to convince the public that eradicating them was necessary because they are harmful to wildlife and they damage the environment.  The Million Trees blog was created to address those claims.

But Doug Tallamy’s active participation in the crusade against non-native plants is a special case because he is an academic entomologist, credentials that make him more influential with the public.  For that reason, Million Trees has critiqued several of his publications.  We publish this critique of Tallamy’s opinion of buddleia for several reasons:

  • Buddleia is very useful to butterflies. The loss of buddleia in our gardens would be a loss to butterflies.
  • San Francisco’s IPM program is using Doug Tallamy’s mistaken theories to promote the use of herbicides to eradicate non-native plants in San Francisco.
  • Buddleia is one of 87 plants that have been classified as “invasive” by the California Invasive Plant Council despite the fact that it is NOT invasive in California. The expansion of the list of “invasive” plants in California to include plants that are NOT invasive in California, will increase the use of herbicides and will eliminate plants that are performing valuable ecological functions.

  1. https://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/never-plant-butterfly-bush  (N.B.  The butterfly in the photo in this article is European Small Tortoiseshell, found in Britain and in Europe.  The caterpillar in the photo is the monarch caterpillar on its host plant, milkweed.  Buddleia is food for both of these butterfly species.)
  2. Arthur M. Shapiro and Katie Hertfelder, “Use of Buddleia as Host Plant by Euphydryas chalcedona in the Sierra Nevada foothills, California,” News of the Lepidopterists’ Society, Spring 2009
  3. http://plantwhateverbringsyoujoy.com/never-pull-up-and-discard-what-you-cannot-identify/

Butterflies of the Bay Area Region

Our readers may remember Professor Arthur Shapiro as a critic of massive ecological “restorations” that attempt to turn back the botanical clock.   Professor Shapiro is better known in the world of academic science as an expert on the butterflies of California.  His Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions (University of California Press, 2007) reflects a lifetime of observation and study of butterflies.  It is as informative about butterfly behavior and physiology as it is readable and engaging.  This is no dry, academic treatise.  Rather it represents an accumulation of over thirty years of experience, walking on every sunny day amongst the butterflies of California and enjoying every minute of it.

We could choose any number of interesting topics from Professor Shapiro’s guide, but we think our readers will be most interested in learning about the natural history of California and the Bay Area region and how that history resulted in our current butterfly fauna.   It’s not a gloomy story, as you might expect in a place that has changed so radically since it was occupied by Europeans in the 19th century.  Rather it’s a story of change and adaptation to change and therefore very much in tune with the concerns of the Million Trees blog.

Butterflies in the landscape created by humans

This is the reality of which plants are useful to butterflies in the Bay Area and Delta Region of California:

Red Admiral.  public domain
Red Admiral. public domain

“California butterflies, for better or worse are heavily invested in the anthropic landscape [altered by humans].  About a third of all California butterfly species have been recorded either ovipositing [laying eggs] or feeding on nonnative plants.  Roughly half of the Central Valley and inland Bay Area fauna is now using nonnative host plants heavily or even exclusively.  Our urban and suburban multivoltine [multiple generations in one year] butterfly fauna is basically dependent on ‘weeds.’  We have one species, the Gulf Fritillary that can exist here only on introduced hosts.  Perhaps the commonest urban butterfly in San Francisco and the East Bay, the Red Admiral is overwhelmingly dependent on an exotic host, pellitory.  And that’s the way it is.”

Professor Shapiro explains that alterations in our landscape made by humans made it necessary for butterflies to make the transition from natives to non-natives in order to survive:

The explanation for this odd situation can be found in the history of California’s wetlands.  As recently as the early twentieth century, there were extensive fresh water marshes in our area, especially along the east side of the Sacramento Valley.  These wetlands stayed green in the summer and could support multivoltinism because native host plants were available…The draining, diking, and agriculturalization of the wetlands corresponded in time with the widespread naturalization of exotic weeds related to native marshland plants.”

Anise Swallowtail butterfly in non-native fennel.  Courtesy urbanwildness.org
Anise Swallowtail butterfly in non-native fennel. Courtesy urbanwildness.org

Here are a few examples of native butterfly species that made the transition from native to non-native plants when the wetlands were altered by humans:

“What did our Mylitta Crescent feed on before the various pestiferous annual Mediterranean thistles come to California?  Native, mostly wetland thistles, just as it does in mountain bogs today…The Common Checkered Skipper still uses checkerbloom in wetlands where it can find it, but thanks to a weedy species of mallow it is now found in every garden and weedy lot in the northern part of the state.  And the Anise Swallowtail still lays eggs on water hemlock…in marshes, but percentage-wise very few of them.”

San Francisco is a special case for butterflies

San Franciscans know that although their city is very small in size, it is composed of many even smaller microclimates.  Professor Shapiro explains how these microclimates impacted our butterflies:

“The main reason why we have so many federally endangered or threatened butterflies in the Bay Area is that our peculiar geography is predisposed to the fragmentation of populations—particularly in the coastal fog belt.  These local evolutionary experiments may well have been dead ends in the long run…But they were so restricted to tiny chunks of habitat that even nineteenth-century development was enough to spell their doom.”

Then he reminds us what it would take to “restore” the landscapes that supported these rare or extinct butterfly species:

“Had there been an Endangered Species Act in the 1860s, San Francisco would be a very different place.  The “Great Sand Bank” occupying the western third of the city would have been declared critical habitat for any number of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth—including three butterflies that subsequently went extinct.  We could still have the Xerces Blue, the Pheres Blue, and the Sthenele Satyr, but there would be no Golden Gate Park and no Sunset District.  The reclamation and stabilization of what was seen as a bleak, barren, fog-and-windswept wasteland were hailed at the time as triumphs of civilization.  Now some environmentalists would like to turn the clock back and restore a little of that unique habitat.  But some of its inhabitants, including those three butterflies, are gone, never to return.”

Golden Gate Park and its neighborhood.  Would you trade this for the barren sand dunes that preceded it?  Gnu Free Documentation
Golden Gate Park and its neighborhood. Would you trade this for the barren sand dunes that preceded it? Gnu Free Documentation

 However, the story isn’t entirely of loss in San Francisco:

Gulf Fritillary.  Creative Commons
Gulf Fritillary. Creative Commons

“The Cabbage White…arrived sometime in the late nineteenth century.  The Gulf Fritillary…seems to have become established only in the 1950s.  The Fiery Skipper was unknown…in 1910…Several native species treated as scarce [in 1910] have become commoner due to introduced, weedy host plants.  The Anise Swallowtail and the Red Admiral are prime examples.  The West Coast Lady, most of whose hosts are weedy, was already very abundant in [1910].”

What do butterflies need today?

Professor Shapiro provides a detailed list of the plants used by the butterflies of California.  You will find roughly equal numbers of native and non-native plants on the list of plants they like as well as the plants they don’t like.  This is how he summarizes these lists:  “Most California natives in cultivation are of no more butterfly interest than nonnatives, and most of the best butterfly flowers in our area are exotic.”

What is done cannot be undone

While humans wring their hands about “weeds” and the loss of historical landscapes, butterflies have moved on.  And so they must to survive.  And so should we because these historical landscapes cannot be recreated without abandoning the economic enterprises which feed us or the homes that house us.  We aren’t going to bull doze Golden Gate Park or the residential neighborhoods that surround it.  The least we can do for the butterflies of California is to quit dousing the plants they need with herbicides solely because they are non-native.  We have created the landscape that we need and we should quit destroying the landscape that our butterflies now need.

Professor Shapiro’s Preface is a fitting conclusion:

The changes that humans have wrought on the lives of butterflies are merely the most recent of the many changes they have gone through in their history.  We have no hope of restoring communities to some hypothetical pristine state on any but a miniature scale.  At best we create gardens that more or less resemble what we think those communities looked like at some arbitrary time in the past.  Like all gardens, they require constant effort to keep them from becoming what today’s conditions drive them to become—conditions dominated by what we characterize as “weeds.”  We can, however, try to protect the bits of nature that have survived relatively unchanged despite us, cognizant that larger forces than we control may override our efforts.”