I was recently in Israel and, while there, visited Utopia Park, a tropical paradise in Kibbutz Bahan in the Hefer Valley, just a few miles inland from Netanya and the Mediterranean Sea.
The climate of Netanya is comparable to that of San Diego, and for good reason. If you look at a world map, you will notice that they are at the same latitude, each being 32 degrees north of the equator, each on the western edge of a continent facing the sea.
Utopia Park is best-known for its collection of 20,000 orchids, but includes other attractions as well. I was especially impressed with Utopia Park’s butterfly house.
This house, extending more than several thousand square feet, consists of a simple wood frame covered with white mosquito netting. The possibility of erecting arches of PVC pipe with the same mosquito netting stretched over them immediately suggests itself as another simple, economical approach to butterfly house construction.
As fascinating as it was to witness the spectacle of thousands of butterflies flitting about, I was equally interested in the plants that filled the house and served as hosts for the several kinds of migrant butterflies that had taken up residence there. All of these species grow well in Los Angeles gardens.
Heading the list of butterfly-attracting plants in the Utopia Park butterfly house are the ornamental sages (Salvia species).
Texas sage varieties (Salvia greggii) in red and pink and salmon, purple Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha), and gentian sage (Salvia patens) are well-represented. Black and Blue Brazilian sage (Salvia guaranitica), named for the fact that its black buds open up into blue flowers, also is prominently displayed.
Rivaling the sages for prominence in the Utopia Park butterfly house are star clusters (Pentas lanceolata), named for the clusters of tiny five-pointed flowers that burst forth at shoot terminals.
These plants can grow well enough in Los Angeles gardens, but do not quite thrive the way they would in a slightly more tropical environment. Plant them in the most humid, yet well-lit, part of your garden, probably where they benefit from proximity to trees but are not quite shaded by them.
Star clusters can be found in red, pink, white, lavender and purple. Like the salvias, they are easily propagated from 4- to 6-inch shoot cuttings at this time of year.
Three butterfly-attracting ground covers are found in the Utopia Garden butterfly house: trailing yellow lantana, Mexican evening primrose (Oenothera berlandieri) and nasturtium.
Trailing lantana is a woody perennial that needs only to be cut back each spring and lightly fertilized to provide months and months of flowers.
Mexican evening primrose fizzles in extreme heat or cold, but possesses redoubtable underground runners from which the plant regenerates itself in late spring as temperatures warm.
Nasturtium has yellow, orange or red flowers and roundish edible leaves you can toss into a salad. It produces fat and healthy seeds that self-sow reliably, allowing it to spread throughout the garden.
One shrub stands out among the rest in the Utopia Park butterfly house. It’s known as Brazilian sky flower (Duranta stenostachya). Flowers are a deep lavender-violet and look like so many little butterflies perched in a row. Foliage is a shimmering light green and the plant slowly arches its way to around 6 feet in height.
What looks like alfalfa is planted around the edges of the butterfly house. Alfalfa flowers are rich in nectar that appeals not only to sulfur butterflies but to honeybees and nearly all types of carnivorous, beneficial insects, as well.
Tip of the Week
Sunday is the last day to take advantage of the Theodore Payne Foundation’s Fall Festival general sale.
Many California natives grown at the foundation’s nursery attract butterflies. In addition to more than 20 different sages (Salvia), you can select from monarch milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa), narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fasicularis), monkey flower (Mimulus), buckthorn (Rhamnus), yarrow (Achillea), gooseberry (Ribes) and bee balm (Monardella), all of which are appropriate for a butterfly garden.