By growing borage (Borago officinalis), I’ve been feeding butterflies all along and didn’t realize it.
I love Portland, but I’ve been lamenting its scarcity of butterflies since moving here two years ago. Back in the Ohio Valley, I raised monarchs, viceroys, tiger swallowtails, zebra swallowtails (my favorite), giant swallowtails, spicebush swallowtails, pipevine swallowtails, red-spotted purples, and American ladies from eggs and held them on my finger while they dried their wings in preparation for their first flight.
I was the butterfly lady who would bring chrysalises in to work, so others could watch them emerge, too.
But butterflies aren’t too common here, and I haven’t bothered to learn much about local species and get their host plants into my garden. I’m growing lots of milkweed on the off-chance that a monarch swings by (I did see one breeze through earlier in the year), but other than that, I’ve done a poor job of providing for butterflies.
So, I was working near one of my holding beds today when a painted lady butterfly stopped by. She had the urgent behavior of a female looking for a host plant, which I recognized well. She would hover over a plant and land, “tasting” it with her feet to see if it was suitable, moving hurriedly from one plant to another. She was concentrating on my borage, which I have everywhere. It has seeded itself around and I let some plants live because it pleases the bees.
But borage is not a food plant for painted ladies, or so I thought.
I remembered that they ate thistles. Poor thing! She saw my messy holding bed and thought it would be a good place to score some thistle, saw the scratchy leaves and got excited, but tasted it and it was only borage.
I consulted my butterfly books to see what else painted lady caterpillars ate. Hollyhocks! I happened to have three little hollyhocks I’d grown from seed for the heck of it but had never planted, so I threw them in my holding bed and watered them in, feeling satisfied that I’d done what I could and that maybe she’d be back.
Then I decided to read up a little more, and lo and behold I found that borage IS a host plant for painted lady butterflies. From hearing about the plight of the monarch butterfly, which eats only milkweeds, you might think that all butterflies are picky eaters, but some are not and can raise their young on several different plants. For the sweet little painted lady, borage is one of those plants.
When I lived in Kentucky, one of my neighbors was Wayne Richards, who with his sister Judy Burris wrote the most fantastic butterfly book ever, The Life Cycles of Butterflies. It has photos of all of the common Eastern butterflies in all of their life stages. I looked up what they had to say about painted lady eggs, so I would know what to look for.
They said that they’re laid on the top surfaces of leaves. This is important, because those eggs are teeny-tiny and it helps to know not just what to look for, but where to look.
They added, “The eggs are a lovely blue or green and have ridges all around.” So I went back out to my borage with my husband’s readers (not that I ever need them) for an egg hunt, and this is what I saw…
So I will bring some painted ladies indoors and raise them on my borage, safe from predators. And I will be the butterfly lady once again.