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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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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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