Jupiter’s beard and Clarkia: Butterfly Magnets

Sep 16, 2023

Jupiter’s beard and Clarkia: Butterfly Magnets

Sep 16, 2023

I have two plants in my garden that are magnets for pollinators and butterflies. Both plants put on quite a flower show and are drought tolerant. Given our ongoing issues with water, this latter feature should be priority for all of us.

Some bird or other creature planted Jupiter's beard some years ago in my garden. I did not know what the plant was, but I noticed that there was always a crowd of bees buzzing around the blossoms. 

Over the years the plant has reseeded and slowly spread over one of my garden beds. I am amazed by the number of pollinators who visit to enjoy the nectar on the flowers. The visitors include bumblebees, honeybees, small butterflies of several types and of course the big butterflies I love to watch, the Swallowtails. Hopefully the Monarchs will soon stop by.

Jupiter's beard (Centranthus ruber) is a drought-tolerant perennial that grows up to three feet tall. It typically has red flowers but some varieties have pink or white blooms. The red blossoms attract more creatures.

The plant is also known as fox's brush, red valerian, keys of heaven, pretty Betsy and spur valerian. It is short-lived but reseeds so well that it can be invasive. Jupiter's beard has naturalized in many places in Europe and is considered a Mediterranean plant. 

I tried saving seed this year but it is difficult. To ensure repeat bloom, I remove the dead flowers daily. But while doing so, I watch all the creatures getting nectar from the fresh blossoms.

During the winter I cut the plants back to the ground. They survive the winter and emerge the following spring to feed another generation of pollinators.

The other pollinator plant I love is Clarkia (Clarkia amoena). It is also known as farewell to spring. This annual plant is native to the Pacific Northwest.  It is named for Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition. There are 40 species in the Clarkia genus, with most native to the western United States but one native to South America.

Initially I purchased a small package of seed online and spread it in my yard. Over the years it has spread itself. However, the seeds pods are easy to harvest if you want to save the seed and sow it in the fall for spring bloom.

Thanks to last spring's rains, my Clarkia put on a beautiful show along with red Asian poppies and California native poppies. During the bloom, the pollinators were busily gathering nectar from every flower. I love to watch this process. It seems that nature itself is helping all its creatures.

I have harvested and saved seeds from Jupiter's beard and Clarkia, but Jupiter's beard is harder to do. I waited until the head of the blooms was mostly clear of flowers and I could see the seed pod. Then I put them in a container in my hothouse to dry with the flower heads pointed down.  Once the flower heads were dry, I cleaned the seed and saved them.

Alternatively, you can dig up this perennial when it's dormant and replant it wherever you wish.   Give it lots of room as it will spread. 

Saving Clarkia seed is much easier as the long stem has small seed pods all along it. I cut the plants back when they finish blooming and put the seed pods in a container.  As the pods ripen, they open and the seeds fall out. I use a small kitchen strainer to clean them. The seeds fall through and I discard the debris outside.

Plant Clarkia seeds in the fall. I wait until October when the days are getting shorter and hopefully there may soon be rain. After spreading the seeds, I walk on them to press them into the soil. Then nature nurtures them until spring.

Gardening with the Masters: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County on Saturday, September 16, from 10 am to noon, for a workshop at Ole Health Garden, 300 Hartle Court, Napa. Children accompanied by an adult are welcome. Class size is limited. Register to attend.

Fall Faire: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County for “A Gardening Science Fair for All Ages” on Saturday, September 30, from 1 pm to 4 pm at Las Flores Community Center, 4300 Linda Vista Avenue, Napa. Get more details here.

Library Talk: Join UC Master Gardeners of Napa County for a free Napa Library talk on “Lawnlessness: Thinking Beyond Turf” on Thursday, October 5, via Zoom. Learn about lawn alternatives that are attractive, lower maintenance and drought tolerant. Register here to receive the Zoom link.

Help Desk: The Master Gardener Help Desk is available to answer your garden questions on Mondays and Fridays from 10 am until 1 pm at the University of California Cooperative Extension Office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa. Or send your questions to mastergardeners@countyofnapa.org. Include your name, address, phone number and a brief description.