Debbie Arrington

Get butterfly food at UC Davis Arboretum

Butterflies such as these monarchs, prefer nectar-rich flowers with a flat surface for landing.
Butterflies such as these monarchs, prefer nectar-rich flowers with a flat surface for landing. Bee File Photo

Ellen Zagory found a surefire way to bring more butterflies into her Davis garden. She grows what they like to eat.

“It’s like a butterfly buffet,” she said. “It’s so much fun to watch.”

Zagory observes butterflies in more than her backyard. As horticulture director of the UC Davis Arboretum, she has a whole campus to see how good bugs (and birds) react to the arboretum’s gardens and campus landscaping.

Pollinators help determine the drought-tolerant plants offered by the arboretum at its popular sales. Their favorites become arboretum favorites, too.

Saturday, Oct. 7, the arboretum’s Teaching Nursery hosts its first sale of the season. This sale features more than 23,000 plants in 600-plus varieties. From 9 to 11 a.m., members of Friends of the Arboretum get first dibs, but patrons can join at the gate (and get a discount and $10 credit, too). The public sale is open 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“We have more plants than ever before,” Zagory said. “The nursery is completely packed. Our theme this year is pollinator gardening – butterflies, hummingbirds and native bees.”

Additional sales will be held Oct. 21 and Nov. 4. Featured this fall are “Garden Gems,” the same pollinator-friendly plants featured weekly in this section.

Some plants seem to be butterfly magnets, she noted.

Butterflies prefer flowers loaded with nectar that’s easy to get, Zagory explained. No trumpets or two-lipped blooms (leave those to the hummingbirds and bees), but something relatively flat. That gives butterflies a landing platform, so they can sit while they eat.

Among their favorites: Asters, lantana, lavender, goldenrod, sedum and anything in the mint family.

When planting a butterfly garden, pick a wide variety of flowering plants so something is always blooming.

“You’re setting that buffet,” Zagory said. “You want to give them something they’ll like.”

Butterflies can be finicky, too. For example, California pipevine swallowtails must have (you guessed it) California pipevines. A range of different flowers and host plants (for caterpillars) broadens the butterfly perspective, too.

“About 20 varieties of butterflies come to Sacramento gardens,” Zagory said. “They’re divided into two groups – those moving through and those sticking around.”

Migrating monarchs are Sacramento’s best-known visiting butterflies. Year-round, mournful dusky-wings are common; their caterpillars eat oak leaves.

Of course, butterflies can’t resist butterfly bush. The arboretum offers at least six varieties.

“They’re mostly seedless, which is great; buddleia can be invasive,” Zagory said. “And if they’re not setting seed, they just stay flowering. Butterflies just love them. I counted five different kinds on one shrub. That’s exciting!”