It has been encouraging to see so many habitat gardening enthusiasts plant more milkweed and work together to save the rapidly declining Monarch populations. While there was some good news of a significant increase in the overwintering Monarch populations on the West Coast, we are still far from the numbers we have seen in the past. We continue to need more milkweed in backyard gardens, public gardens, undeveloped land—anywhere we can replace some of the milkweed that has been lost to development.
Meanwhile, there are many other local butterflies that are not flourishing. Even if I hadn’t seen news of declining butterfly populations, in general, I would be worried at how many fewer butterfly species I am seeing each year in gardens, on hikes. Unlike the Monarch, some of our local butterflies can lay their eggs on several species of host plants, though they are often in the same plant family. Some of our butterfly host plants are trees or shrubs, such as willows (Mourning Cloak, Western Tiger Swallowtail, Lorquin’s Admiral), oaks (Mournful Duskywing, California Sister), California coffeeberry (Pale Swallowtail, Gray Hairstreak), and mallows (Painted Lady, West Coast Lady, Common Checkered Skipper).
Mallows include shrubs and perennials, and they are easy to grow. Chaparral mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) is a fast growing shrub up to 6 ft tall; island mallow (Lavatera assurgentiflora), which is native to the Channel Islands, is also a fast growing shrub (up to 10 feet tall) with beautiful foliage and showy rose-pink flowers from spring to fall. Though drought tolerant it is happiest at the coast and would need summer water inland. A friend grows it successfully in Novato by planting it near the house, which offers some wind protection. Our native perennial wildflower, checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) is commonly planted as a host plant, but trailing mallow (Modiolastrum lateritum), if you can find it, was always the favorite choice of a botanist friend who inspired me to plant for butterflies many years ago. Mallows, of course, are great nectar plants for all pollinators.
Co-Founder - the Habitat Corridor Project and Author of The California Wildlife Habitat Garden: How to Attract Bees, Butterflies, Birds, and Other Animals (UC Press)