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Swallowtails, our first butterflies of spring

A Western tiger swallowtail butterfly enjoys the nectar from blooming lilacs. (Photos: Debbie Arrington)

After overwintering, they come out when the temperatures rise

Where did they come from? Swallowtail butterflies seemed to appear out of nowhere this past week, enjoying Sacramento’s first warm days of April. They could be spotted in gardens, feasting on nectar of newly opened flowers and spreading a little butterfly joy.

It turns out, they were here all along. Swallowtails overwinter as pupa, that stage between caterpillar and maturity. Tucked inside a protective chrysalis, the butterfly emerges as soon as the weather warms.

In fall, the caterpillar attaches what will be its winter shelter to a favorite host plant. Swallowtails lay their eggs on a wide variety of trees, shrubs and perennials, ranging from cherries to tulip trees.

As its name implies, the pipevine swallowtail is partial to California pipevine, which is native to our area. Other species like parsley, dill, anise, Queen Anne’s lace and other members of the umbellifer or carrot family -- all common to our area, too.

The trick is to make sure that their winter home wasn’t pruned off and discarded. It’s easy to accidentally throw away hibernating butterflies along with dried stems – especially if you grow a lot of butterfly-friendly plants.

Pipevine swallowtail butterflies tend to beat their wings rapidly while feeding.
With afternoon temperatures in the 70s this week, expect many more butterfly coming-out parties.

Several individuals dined on my lilacs, fascinating me and my cat. (She couldn’t keep her eyes off them!)

Looking like hummingbirds to my feline, pipevine swallowtails tend to beat their wings rapidly as they feed, a way to keep their balance. (Fortunately, the butterflies could flutter out of the cat’s reach.)

Who’s visiting your garden? Check out the excellent website of UC Davis butterfly expert Art Shapiro at .


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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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