In spring it feels like we live in paradise. We are surrounded by glowing green meadows and hillsides. Wildflowers are blooming, weeds decorate the landscape everywhere, and our gardens are waking up with new blooms each week.
Spring rains have led to lush growth in our wildlands and gardens, and feeding on this abundant spring foliage are a variety of native butterfly caterpillars, some of which may be sadly mistaken for pests.
When we think of butterfly gardens, what comes to mind are the flower nectar plants that attract butterflies. But we shouldn’t overlook the vital importance of the larval host plants caterpillars feed on. Each species of butterfly caterpillar eats plants in specific families. They cannot feed on just any plant. Butterflies have evolved with specific plant families and have developed the capability to process and tolerate the various chemicals — some toxic — that these plants contain. A spring flying butterfly like the Mourning Cloak feeds primarily on willows, which are not toxic but have bristly hairs on their backs to deter predators from eating them.
A spring butterfly that feeds on toxic plants is the Pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor). Pipevine caterpillars are colored a striking black and red to warn predators they are toxic. These caterpillars are so toxic, birds actually vomit when they eat them. When caterpillars consume toxic plants, they become toxic for life, even when they transform into butterflies, from the chemicals contained in the toxic plants. Many are colored with red or orange colors to deter predators like birds from eating them. The Monarch butterfly is another example.
Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) are the earliest butterflies to be active in the year. Here in the North Bay they are active only until early summer to midsummer, when they enter a hibernation phase. They become active again in the fall for a short time before they find a safe place to overwinter in tree crevices or under the overhang of buildings. They are a mid-sized to large butterfly with charcoal black wings with a distinctive pale gold band on the bottom of each wing. Above this band are iridescent blue dots. Wing margins are irregular. They are primarily seen in riparian areas, but also in city parks or urban areas where they can find their larval host trees like willows, birch or elm. The first Mourning Cloak butterflies you see in spring are adults that have overwintered from an April or May hatching the year before. They fly during the first warm winter days when temperatures reach above 60 degrees and bask in the sun with their wings outstretched. Adults that have overwintered look faded and worn compared to the first deep black and gold offspring of the early summer season.
Mourning Cloaks are the longest-lived butterfly, surviving about ten months. The adults nectar on blooming willows, but feed also on tree sap, or gain minerals from mud. The females lay eggs in clusters on willows, poplars, American elm and birch. Caterpillars feed together communally in large webbed aggregations. Because of feeding in numbers, these caterpillars may be mistaken for pest insects and sprayed with pesticides, so be aware. Caterpillars of butterflies and moths form an important food for bird young, and spraying pesticides will deprive young birds of much needed food. The caterpillars often pupate away from the tree they fed on and pupae can often be seen on nearby building walls. Hosting these spring caterpillars is a wonderful event and should be enjoyed. Willows have a proliferation of leaves — and feeding caterpillars won’t harm them.
Where to find inspiration on North Bay garden tours
May is the month people like to pack up their cars, and possibly a picnic, and hit the road. Their destination? The homes of strangers who, for one day, invite the public to ogle their homes and admire their gardens.
But this year, two longtime favorite tours have been canceled.
Food for Thought has decided not to hold its Spring Home and Garden Tour, a fundraising staple for the Forestville Food bank for many years. Karen Van Dyke, development director for the nonprofit, said the agency is shifting its fundraising model and putting more energy into Dining Out for Life.
“We have a lot of growing happening at the agency right now and decided to move in another direction for funding opportunities this spring. That’s not to say it will always be,” she said.
The Sonoma County Medical Association Alliance Foundation also suspended its spring garden tour. Foundation President Patty Lyn Tweeten said the organization already had decided to cancel the 2018 tour and resume it in 2019 on an every other year basis. But after the October wildfires destroyed so many homes in Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley, the association decided to delay the tour indefinitely.
“In the county 200 physicians lost their homes and one-fifth of our members lost their homes too. And our last garden tour was in Fountaingrove,” she said.
Of the seven gorgeous gardens featured in the 2017 tour, three were destroyed by fire and one was heavily damaged. Of the 36 Alliance members who volunteered for the garden tour last year or who served on the committee, 12 lost their homes.
In the near future the Alliance has turned its focus to helping county physicians displaced by the fire. She said the organization is looking at some other project related to gardens, perhaps by donating landscape plants to fire victims tasked with replanting their gardens.
Despite the cancellations there are still a few other home and garden tours taking place this spring on the North Coast.
Eco-Friendly Garden Tour: Learn water-saving strategies and gardening tips from other homeowners during the free Eco-Friendly Garden Tour, featuring 18 gardens throughout Sonoma and Marin counties. The California Native Plant Society will present five California native gardens in Santa Rosa, and the Laguna Environmental Center in Santa Rosa will feature a Residential Landscape Design Display. The tour is hosted by the Sonoma-Marin Partnership, a group of 10 water utilities in Sonoma and Marin counties. The self-guided tour is free, but registration is required at savingwaterpartnership.org/eco-friendly-garden-tour. For more information, email email@example.com.
The Healdsburg Homes Tour: This is a chance to check out some of Healdsburg’s historic homes, including a settlement-era cottage built in 1864, and a gabled cottage built in 1866. Six homes are featured this year on the tour, put on by the American Association of University Women. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Cost is $45 in advance or $50 the day of the tour. Tickets can be purchased at Copperfield’s and Levin & Co. in Healdsburg. Check in is at the Healdsburg Museum, 221 Matheson St. Healdsburg.
Sea Ranch Architectural Tour and Wine Tasting: The Sea Ranch is world renowned for its environmentally-sensitive architecture and design. This annual self-guided tour put on by the Soroptimist of the Mendocino-Sonoma Coast features a number of significant homes both in Sea Ranch and along the North Coast. It ends with a wine tasting and silent auction at the Gualala Arts Center. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 12. Tickets are $60 in advance and $65 the day of the tour. Tickets can be purchased at Brown Paper Tickets, https://bpt.me/3349786.
Mendocino Coast Garden Tour: This year’s tour put on by the Mendocino Art Center includes hideaways from Albion to Fort Bragg, including a unique rock garden, the gardens at Digging Dog Nursery and a garden with views of the Albion Bridge. Ravens Restaurant at Stanford Inn by the Sea serves a benefit lunch the day of the tour from noon to 2 p.m. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 30. $20 for lunch. 707-937-5818, ext. 10, or 800-653-3328, ext. 10. Mendocinoartcenter.org.