Gardening for a James Bay Butterfly

By Kathryn Pankowski

Butterflies flitting from flower to flower are a lovely part of gardening, right?

James Bay was once very rich in butterflies. In the 1890s, WH Danby reported that “millions of butterflies” swarmed the meadows around Beacon Hill and along the sea cliffs; some species even formed “clouds” of thousands of individuals. It must have been a spectacular sight.

An Anise Swallowtail Butterfly. Photo courtesy of Alan Schmierer, via Wikimedia Creative Commons, CCO 1.1 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

An Anise Swallowtail Butterfly. Photo courtesy of Alan Schmierer, via Wikimedia Creative Commons, CCO 1.1 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Danby documented 40 species. A 2010 survey of the City of Victoria’s butterflies found only nine native species left in the City. But, as a bright spot, the author noted: “The Anise Swallowtail population along the coastal bluffs of Beacon Hill Park is an important small population in the Victoria area.”

I usually see a few Anise Swallowtails in my garden each year, and you are likely to spot one wherever you garden in James Bay.

So what can we, as James Bay gardeners, do to keep this beautiful butterfly around?

Butterflies go through four distinct forms in life: an egg, a larva, a pupa, and the adult butterfly. To keep going, they have to have the right conditions for all four stages of life.

The adult is probably the easiest to help, even if you only have a balcony garden. They need nectar, water, places to bask in the sun, places to shelter from the wind, and an absence of poisons.

The Anise Swallowtail originally nectared entirely on native plants, such as camas, spring gold, and Canadian columbine, so you could add more of these to your borders or pots. But the adult Anise Swallowtail is not a picky drinker, and will quite happily belly up to a wide range of non-native garden plants. Providing a spring to fall succession of nectar-rich flowers suitable for butterflies (there are lots of lists on the internet and in gardening books) will keep them well fed.

Adult butterflies may also “puddle” – sip water from mud puddles. This water has minerals from soil dissolved in it, so is essentially a kind of butterfly vitamin supplement. If you garden in the ground, normal watering will make suitable puddles. If you garden in pots, you can make a puddling station: throw a handful of soil into a pie plate, then add water and a few pebbles that rise above the water level.

Now, what about providing for eggs and larvae? This is where things get tricky. The caterpillars of some native butterflies will only eat one kind of plant, and this is why many of them have disappeared from developed areas – there just aren’t enough host plants left to keep their young alive.

So what do our Anise Swallowtail young eat? Only plants in the carrot family - but not all plants in the carrot family will do. The adult butterflies sense (with their feet, no less!) which species contain certain chemicals and only lay their eggs on them. Why? The caterpillars use the chemicals ingested through their leaf-munching to build compounds that make them taste really bad to predators.

In pre-settler days, Anise Swallowtails caterpillars munched their way through the native sea-cliff plants of the carrot family: cow‐parsnip (Heracleum maximum), sea‐coast angelica (Angelica lucida), and barestem desert‐parsley (Lomatium nudicaule). But – and this is probably why they are still with us while other butterflies are not – they could also eat the leaves of many common garden plants brought by settlers: Queen-Anne’s lace, fennel, carrots, parsnips, and herbs such as parsley, angelica, dill, and anise.

So if you want to keep the Anise Swallowtail around, incorporate some of their favorite food plants into flower borders or add an extra block of dill or fennel to the veg patch ‘for the butterflies’. Or leave some carrots or parsnips to grow on (they both have beautiful flowers in the second year). The only trick is that you have to be willing to let the anise caterpillars chew on them. No sprays or squishing.

As a pupa, the only thing the Anise Swallowtail needs is, literally, a place to hang out. Check for chrysalises before you cut down plants in the carrot family or those growing nearby.

To see what eggs, caterpillars and pupae look like, visit

If you want to help butterflies, don’t plant milkweed for Monarchs – we don’t have breeding Monarchs on Vancouver Island. Plant dill and fennel and carrots and parsnips for Anise Swallowtails instead. Even if you don’t manage to attract butterflies, you’ll at least get lots of good things to eat yourself.

Kathryn Pankowski is the James Bay Neighbourhood Association Neighbourhood Gardening Advocate: she can be reached at The JBNA would like to acknowledge the financial support of the City of Victoria for this initiative.

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