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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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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 26:

Sacramento can expect another inch of rain from this latest storm. Leave the sprinklers off at least another week. Temps will dip down into the low 30s early in the week, so avoid planting tender seedlings (such as tomatoes). Concentrate on these tasks before or after this week’s rain:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Knock off aphids with a strong blast of water or some bug soap as soon as they appear.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to help corral blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees, which are now in bloom and setting fruit.

To prevent sunburn and borer problems on young trees, paint the exposed portion of the trunk with diluted white latex (water-based) interior paint. Dilute the paint with an equal amount of cold water before application.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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