Painted Lady Day in the I Spy! Garden

Two days ago, I spotted a single Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterfly sunning on a pile of wood chips. With all the rain we’ve had, seeing even one butterfly is an early treat.

Stepping out this afternoon, dozens of butterflies filled the sky, buds, and blooms on our rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and New Zealand tea trees (Leptospermum). Traveling north from the Mojave desert up to the Pacific Northwest, some Ladies (and their gents) have veered off their normal interior CA migration route to skim along the coast. Ours may not mirror or rival the Southern California explosion, but I’m ecstatic!

Here on the Northern CA coast, the nights have been cool, so native spring-flowering plants are slower to get started. My manzanitas and huckleberry are coming along, but not getting a lot of action. So far, honey bees from the neighbor’s hive and the native “Yellow-faced” bumble bees ( Bombus vosnesenskii) are the only active bee species I’ve seen around the yard. Hover flies are busy, though. Everyone love the rosemary, grevillea, and teas. Anna’s hummingbirds have been here all year, and they’re now having to share resources with the Allen’s.

Bombus vosnesenskii on Allium variety
Allen’s hummingbird Photo: Katy Pye

Are you seeing Painted Ladies or other butterflies already this spring?
If you want to contribute your P.L. sightings to science, check out this project at Iowa State University:

I Spy! Butterfly watch station by puddling pond Photo: Katy Pye

Take an I Spy! video tour.

Puddling pond for butterflies: sand, water, and a sprinkling of salt. Sticks for perching. Aging banana added later. Males need added minerals to help with sperm development.

Host and Nectar Plant Preferences of Vanessa Butterflies

Butterfly common name – scientific name; Host plants; Adult food = host and nectar plants

Red Admiral – Vanessa atalanta Nettle family (Urticaceae) including stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), tall wild nettle (U. gracilis), wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica), pellitory (Parietoria pennsylvanica), mamaki (Pipturus albidus), and possibly hops (Humulus); Prefer sap flows on trees, fermenting fruit, and bird droppings; visiting flowers only when these are not available. Then they will nectar at common milkweed, red clover, aster, and alfalfa, among others.
Painted Lady – Vanessa cardui More than 100 host plants noted; favorites include thistles, hollyhock and mallow (Malvaceae), and various legumes (Fabaceae); The Painted Lady prefers nectar from composites 3-6 feet high, especially thistles; also aster, cosmos, blazing star, ironweed, and joe-pye weed. Flowers from other families that are visited include red clover, buttonbush, privet, and milkweeds.
West Coast Lady – Vanessa annabella Mallow family (Malvaceae) including tree mallow (Lavatera), globe mallow (Sphaeralcea), bush mallow (Malvastrum), mallow (Malva), alkali mallow (Sida), checkerbloom (Sidalcea), and hollyhock (Althea); Flower nectar.
American Lady – Vanessa virginiensis Plants in the sunflower family everlasting (Gnaphalium obtusifolium), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), plantain-leaved pussy toes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), wormwood (Artemisia), ironweed (Vernonia), and burdock (Arctium); Flower nectar almost exclusively, including dogbane, aster, goldenrod, marigold, selfheal, common milkweed, and vetch.

Want to start your own I Spy! garden watch? Download a free poster or link to lots of gardening and pollinator ID resources section from my new workbook, I Spy! Who’s Using My Garden? A Pollinator Garden Workbook.

13 thoughts on “Painted Lady Day in the I Spy! Garden

  1. Dear Dale and Katy,
    I can’t help but think you two ladies ought to know one another—and since you both are artists and both just sent me emails about painted ladies, I thought I’d take a minute and introduce you. Sonoma and Mendocino counties are both the richer for your appreciative eyes. I love that you both have butterfly fever.
    Dale, Katy’s post is farther down. Sending smooches to both of you. Xoxo susan

    From: Dale Wiley
    I’ve always felt an affinity with butterflies. I remember in first grade, standing in the backyard with arms outstretched, waiting for a
    butterfly to land on me—and one did!
    I just saw a show on the Painted lady migrations on PBS (Sex Lies and Butterflies)—so interesting! Somebody told me about seeing these migrations
    Thru Sonoma County in the past (Linda?) It’s much like the Monarchs’ journey—traveling thousands of miles together,
    Wintering in warmer climes, eventually coming back to where the journey began, taking several generations to make the full trip.
    The show I saw was about Painted Ladies going from African desert up to Sweden ? I think it was, and back. The Spanish entomologist examining
    them in Morocco on their way back south showed how beat up they were, their wings just jagged fragments, but still they pushed on.
    Anyway, even though I know about the transformational life cycle of butterflies and the Monarch migration story, I was just enthralled by this show…..
    A rare treat: The Conservatory Flowers in Golden Gate Park again this spring has their living display of hatching butterflies…I’ve seen it twice and want to see It
    again–—you are actually in the greenhouse with them and can watch the butterflies coming out of their chrysalis and flying for the first time…worth experiencing!!

    Northward flights
    Posted: 20 Mar 2019 09:00 PM PDT
    Have you heard about the recent northward flights of Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterflies? Some of the observations made it to the New York Times a few days ago.

    Painted Ladies were visible on Bodega Head throughout the past weekend. During the last few days I’ve noticed them flying by my office window. For the record, here’s a photo that I took from my desk on 19 March 2019:

    I’ve written about Painted Ladies in the past. For more photos and information about them, see the post called “The third lady” on 13 October 2012 and “On their way to the desert?” on 23 November 2013.

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    • Hey Susan.

      Thanks for sharing Dale’s thoughts and post. I have seen “Sex, Lives, and Butterflies” and agree, it is fascinating. Nice to know about the hatching display in SF.

      Wishing you both a full and happy pollinator year.


  2. Lots of Ladies in our garden and neighborhood too, mostly on rosemary.  My butterfly ID card notes that there’s also a West Coast Lady, /Vanessa annabella. /I haven’t had one sit still long enough to figure out whether our visitors are these or V. cardui. Thoughts? / /

    • Hi Maureen. Yes, these kids are fast and on a mission!

      So far, it looks like all mine are V. cardui. I’ve had V. annabella in the past, but they appeared later and were mixed in with the cardui. Just checked a few photos from earlier years and they range from July through December(! on a lantana). The only way I’d really know is because of my photographs.

      “Flight: Many flights throughout the year in lowland California.
      Caterpillar Hosts: Many plants in the mallow family (Malvaceae) including tree mallow (Lavatera), globe mallow (Sphaeralcea), bush mallow (Malvastrum), mallow (Malva), alkali mallow (Sida), checkerbloom (Sidalcea), and hollyhock (Althea).”

      The deer ate our Lavatera and I think it’s too damp for hollyhock. I’ve tried to find checkerbloom.

  3. I saw one today too, Katy. It was flitting around in what’s left of one of our milkweed bushes. Nona

    Sent from my iPad


    • Great! You’ll have to tell me how you got your milkweed to survive here. I’ve tried, but they never make it to creating a bloom head before they wither from the wet.

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