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Sachem Skipper
Sachem Skipper
(Atalopedes campestris)

Caterpillar hosts: Grasses including Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), crabgrass (Digitaria), St. Augustine grass (Stenotaphrum secundatum), and goosegrass (Eleusine).
Adult food: Nectar from many flowers including swamp and common milkweeds, buttonbush, dogbane, peppermint, red clover, tickseed sunflower, thistles, New York ironweed, marigold, and asters.

The Sachem Skipper can be found around disturbed, open areas such as roadsides, landfills, pastures, meadows, fencerows, yards, parks, and lawns.

How To Butterfly Garden

Habitat How-To
Habitat loss is the number one threat to our native butterfly species. Their life cycle depends on the availability of host plants, open spaces that aren't sprayed with insecticides, and shelter for chrysalids. Moreover, as adults, butterflies are flying insects adapted to a large territorial range, if not actual migration. Understanding the needs of butterflies in all of their stages helps us understand the structure of good habitat and the importance of maintaining it.

While far from an exact science, habitat gardening for butterflies does have a simple, ecological structure and many avenues that are fascinating to explore. If you are just getting interested, the best way to begin is by watching butterflies. You can learn a lot simply through observation and imagination. At the same time, start doing little things here and there, keeping the general guidelines in mind, following the steps below, and paying attention to the details of your garden. You will be surprised how big the "small world" of butterflies can become.

General Guidelines:
Don't spray! Butterflies are insects and caterpillars are juvenile butterflies. If they are eating your plants, it's because they want to fly someday. There are other strategies you can use to save your plants; see below for ways to avoid insecticides.

  • Relax! Many common weeds are host plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars, and often, chrysalids are tucked away on the branches of nearby shrubs you're about to prune, or in piles of debris you mean to tidy up. Take the time to be gentle and let nature take its course.

  • Observe! Getting to know what your local species look like as eggs, larva (caterpillars), and pupa (in chrysalis) will help you recognize, protect, and make room for these forms. Watching to see what places butterflies visit most will show you what to plant more of. Seeing a new species for the first time will reward your efforts and inspire you to expand.

Step one: Attracting Butterflies to your garden
The most basic way to attract butterflies to your garden is to establish a nectar buffet.
Buddleia davidii
Buddleia davidii

Some plants are more bountiful in nectar, or the access to the nectar is easier for the butterflies.

The Butterfly Bush (Buddleia) and the tall purple blooming Verbina bonariensis are well known butterfly nectar plants. Both have a long blooming season. Centranthus and Bidens bloom from early spring until late fall. Providing nectar plants in the early spring is important for the early emerging Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly and the Monarch and skippers benefit from the late season October Glory or Bidens.

Step two: Providing for Future Generations
Each species of butterfly has a narrow range of plant species that their caterpillar progeny can eat. Often this range of "larval host plants" is limited to a few types of a certain genus, and sometimes there is only a single species of plant that a particular caterpillar depends on for survival. Obviously, it is important for adult butterflies to have access to these plants in order for successive generations to take hold. If the host plants aren't there, mother butterflies will go somewhere else, perhaps less safe than your garden, to lay their eggs. Here are some examples of the close relationship between butterflies and their larval host plants, followed by a list of host plants for our local Sonoma County caterpillars.

Piveine SwallowtailThe Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar eats only the California Dutchman's Pipe (Aristolochia californica). The abundance of this vine on Ms. Hallberg's land, climbing in the buddleia, on the trellis, or over the shrubs and on fences not seen from the paths, led to large numbers of Pipevine Swallowtail Butterflies making the rest of the Gardens their home - why go anywhere else? - which, in turn, inspired Louise to found the Hallberg Butterfly Gardens.

Asclepia speciosa

The Monarch caterpillar needs milkweeds (Asclepia spp.). The California native Asclepia speciosa grows well in this area, but becomes tough and dry very quickly. The tropical Asclepia currassavica is a good summer-blooming annual. Asclepia incarnata winters over and provides attractive flowers as well. The tall Asclepia fruticosa (Swan Shrub) provides a lot of food for the Monarch's very hungry larvae and, while it does not winter over in Graton, this plant does well year-round in sheltered areas of Sonoma County.

Other caterpillars need weeds such as plantain, fennel, dock, sorrel, wild radish, clovers, cudweeds, and even thistles. Butterfly gardeners take care to grow weeds among their flowers, either tucking them away in unvisited corners or happily taking the excuse to let parts of their yard run wild. These weeds will also point the way to caterpillar populations in vacant lots, open lands, and riparian corridors. Butterfly gardeners need to be careful, though, so that they do not let invasive weeds travel to sensitive native plant communities that might be nearby.

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