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Another monarch imposter in NorCal gardens

The gulf fritillary is often mistaken for a monarch butterfly. (Courtesy Dr. Shapiro via

Gulf fritillary seeks its favorite plant: Passion flowers

This butterfly has a passion for passion flowers.

Just as monarchs must have milkweed, the gulf fritillary is dependent on Passiflora , the passion vine. And like the painted ladies, this orange-and-black butterfly is often mistaken for the vanishing monarch.

Butterfly expert Dr. Art Shapiro of UC Davis often gets calls or emails about misidentified fritillary sightings.

"The gulf fritillary has silver spots, but it's a big orange and black butterfly, too," he said. "Unless people notice the silver spots, they think it's a monarch, too."

Shapiro notes that the gulf fritillary was nonexistent in the Sacramento area for decades after a hard frost in the 1970s killed all the available passion vines as well as overwintering butterflies.

"It's a subtropical species that likes to eat a tropical plant; there are no native passion flowers in California," he explained. "It's not adapted at all to our area. It got down to 21 degrees and wiped out the whole population."

Gulf fritillary butterflies started showing up again about 10 to 13 years ago, he estimated. They've been spotted in Davis, North Sacramento, Rancho Cordova, West Sacramento, Suisun, Fairfield, Folsom, south Sacramento and several other spots.

How the first gulf fritillary arrived in California is a mystery. As its name implies, it prefers the Gulf of Mexico.

"The first one was identified in Southern California in 1875," Shapiro said."It must have come from somewhere back east."

One was spotted in the Bay Area in 1908, but these butterflies didn't really move in until the 1950s. Since then, a large colony has made Berkeley its year-round home.

A sure sign of happy fritillary is a passion vine with chewed-up leaves.

Shapiro recalled a passion vine that grew behind a Davis restaurant. "It was a big vine and every leaf was eaten," he said. "Downtown Davis was full of gulf fritillaries for weeks."


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

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

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* 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 fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* 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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