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Gardens for Wildlife

Fragmentation of habitats on a local scale has been damaging to wildlife dependent on these associations of plants. Bringing these plants, sought after by animals, birds, and insects, into our home gardens is a way of providing some connection between habitats separated by urban development. It can provide both food and homes for these creatures, and gives them a reason to visit where we can most easily see them.

Native Plant Lists for Wildlife Gardens

Native Plants for Butterflies and Hummingbirds

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Gardening For Our Feathered Friends

The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is visited by 123 species of birds, some year-round, others seasonally. Birds recently spotted in the Garden

image of Oak titmouse in coast live oak at SBBG, photo by Sally Isaacson image of Western junco at SBBG, photo by Michael Horns image of Great horned owl in Sycamore tree at SBBG, photo by M.S. Muckley image of Hummingbird visiting Hummingbird sage at SBBG, photo by Daryl Metzger

View more images of birds on the SBBGPhotos website

If you wish to attract birds to your garden, you can do more than merely provide food. 

Favorable bird habitat also includes shelter, nesting sites, cover, and water.

An increasingly popular gardening trend is to bring nature into the designed landscape by providing suitable habitat for desirable wildlife. Most gardeners now realize that an immaculately manicured garden – devoid of insects, the occasional weed, or any sign of debris – is not very inviting to birds, bees, or butterflies. Those who garden with native plants have already extended a welcome.

  • Provide water in a fairly open area so you can observe bird activity and cats can't strike without warning.
  • Provide shelter and cover by creating continuous layers of vegetation from the ground up. Birds forage and perch at varying levels, not just on the ground or in the treetops. Recall where you have observed activity in the wild for landscape ideas.
  • Leave some dead snags in trees and don't rush to prune every dead twig or fading flower. These are necessary for cavity-dwelling birds, for perching, and for nest-building material.
  • For hummingbirds, include plants with colorful, nectar-rich flowers that bloom at different seasons. And other birds need food year-round, too, whether it be insects, dry seeds, fleshy berries, or flower buds.
  • The greater the diversity of plants and habitats in your garden, the wider the array of birds you will attract. Here are just a few of the many California native plants to consider:
  • Nectar-bearing plants for hummingbirds: honeysuckles, currants and gooseberries, larkspurs, penstemons, salvias, columbine, bush snapdragon, bladderpod, monkeyflowers, woolly blue-curls, California fuchsia.
  • Flower buds, berries, and seeds eaten by other birds: barberries, manzanitas, toyon, coffeeberry, redberry, lemonade berry, sugar bush, currants and gooseberries, roses, elderberry, snowberry, wild grape, bush sunflower, buckwheats, willows, oaks, sycamores, pines, cherries, cottonwood, quail brush, mountain mahogany, grasses. Most of these plants also provide cover or nesting materials. Add Ceanothus, coyote brush, and California bay to these lists as well.

Gardening to Attract Butterflies

image of Monarch butterfly visiting Aesculus at SBBG, photo by Martin Corral image of Swallowtail butterfly visiting Matillija poppies at SBBG, photo by Tricia Wardlaw image of Monarch in the Meadow at SBBG, photo by Tracy Cohen

View more images of butterflies and other insects on the SBBGPhotos website

There is something quite magical in watching a butterfly flit through the garden, alighting on one flower after another. A garden rich in native California plants is bound to attract a high diversity of butterfly species. Although many exotic plants will do likewise (e.g. butterfly bush, Buddleia sp.), incorporating natives also helps support other beneficial insects and birds as well.

To tempt butterflies, simply offer the appropriate food plants, moisture, and sun. Aim to provide food sources for both adults and caterpillars. Adults feed on nectar from flowers or on rotting fruit and lay their eggs on leaves; caterpillars eat foliage, alas. Butterflies cannot drink from open water, preferring damp muddy areas instead. A few flat rocks in the sun will give adults a place to warm themselves on chilly days.

When selecting nectar plants, be aware that adults can see color, so use bold splashes liberally throughout the garden and large groupings to attract them. Short tubular or broad flat flowers are the best shapes for feeding and landing. Strive for continuous bloom, since butterflies are active year-round.

Once the eggs hatch, the hungry caterpillars begin to feed upon the host plant. Gardeners, of course, are not too keen on having holes chewed in their prized specimens, but to create desirable butterfly habitat, one must tolerate a certain amount of nibbling.

This raises the issue of pest control. Although there are some rather destructive caterpillars (i.e. cabbage loopers, tomato hornworms), the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), the preferred biological control, should be used conservatively, since all caterpillars will die if they ingest foliage sprayed with this substance. Handpicking and destroying undesirable caterpillars may be tedious, but will safegaurd diversity.

The list of native host plants for butterflies is quite long. Below are a few that are often available at the Garden Growers Nursery or as seed in the Garden Shop, where you can also find a great selection of books on this delightful subject.

Nectar Plants:
Yarrow, California buckeye, coyote brush, ceanothus, buckwheats, golden yarrow, toyon, California-aster, coyote mints, goldenrods, woolly blue-curls, seaside daisy, California poppy, coffeeberry, California buttercup, currants and gooseberries, sages, blue-eyed grass, coreopsis, barberries, phacelias.

Larval Food Plants:
Ceanothus, monkey flowers, buckwheats, toyon, grasses, oaks, coffeeberry, snowberry, Chinese houses, bush sunflower, bladderpod, tree mallow, California-aster, lupines, penstemons, currants and gooseberries.

Download CA Native Plant List for Hummingbirds and Butterflies