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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 Feb. 18:

It's wet to start the week. When you do get outside, between or after storms, concentrate on damage control:

* Keep storm drains and gutters clear of debris.

* Clean up tree debris knocked down by wind and rain.

* Where did the water flow in your garden? Make notes where revisions are necessary.

* Are any trees leaning? See disturbances in the ground or lawn around their base? Time to call an arborist before the tree topples.

* Dump excess water out of pots.

* Indoors, start peppers, tomatoes and eggplant from seed.

* Lettuce and other greens also can be started indoors from seed.

* Got bare-root plants? Put their roots in a bucket of water until outdoor soil dries out. Or pot them up in 1- or 5-gallon containers. In April, transplant the plant, rootball and all, into the garden.

* Browse garden websites and catalogs. It’s not too late to order for spring and summer.

* Show your indoor plants some love. Dust leaves and mist to refresh.

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