Butterfly Garden

Recently we’ve noticed a big interest in butterfly gardening and decided it was time to put together this information. Along with observations from Tucson botanist Greg Starr, two sources of information were particularly helpful – the booklet “Desert Butterfly Gardening,” published by the Arizona Native Plant Society and the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute and the book “Native Gardens for Dry Climates,” by Sally and Andy Wasowski.

In a butterfly garden you should provide both nectar sources and larval food plants. Adult butterflies feed on the nectar of certain flowers, while the caterpillars feed on specific plants known as “larval food plants.” Try to combine plants to provide a year-round source of nectar, if possible. Limit or eliminate the use of pesticides and other chemicals in the garden, as they can kill caterpillars and adult butterflies. You can expect butterflies to be most active during ideal conditions: sunny, calm days, when the temperatures range from 65 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. They seem to prefer early mornings and evenings during the hot summer months. On the following list we have included the “butterfly plants” that we grow, as well as a few others that you may be able to locate elsewhere.

Native trees listed in the songbird table can also be used for peripheral plantings and shade for butterflies.

Design Guidelines

  • Provide a variety of plants that feed larval and adult butterflies. Food plants need to provide for two different stages of the butterfly’s life: larval and adult. Therefore, it is important to have an adequate mix of plants that will support larvae and other plants that will be available for the adults.
  • Emphasize massing of plants. Massing should be relatively greater in butterfly gardens compared to bird gardens. This is due to the greater recognition factor of plant masses rather than a singular plant by adult butterflies. Use of accent plants (with unique shapes, such as agaves or yuccas) with the many masses can create effective contrast and interest for the garden visitor.
  • Provide sunny, wind-protected locations. Butterflies are cold-blooded and need sunlight to warm the muscles they use to fly, and protection from wind when feeding.
  • Provide a puddle. Butterflies require a shallow puddle or moist soil for water. A slow dripping emitter near a water-loving plant can fulfill this need.

Plants for Butterfly Gardens

Genus Species: Asclepias subulata
Common Name: Milkweed
Type: Shrub
Notes: Adult and larval food
Genus Species: Buddleja davidii
Common Name: Butterfly Bush
Type: Shrub
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Buddleja marrubifolia
Common Name: Butterfly Bush
Type: Shrub
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Caesalpinea pulcherrima
Common Name: Red bird of paradise
Type: Shrub
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Calliandra eriophylla
Common Name: Baja Fairy Duster
Type: Shrub
Notes: Larval food
Genus Species: Chilopsis linearis
Common Name: Desert Willow
Type: Tree
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Cordia parvifolia
Common Name: Little leaf Cordia
Type: Shrub
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Encelia farinosa
Common Name: Brittlebush
Type: Shrub
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Hyptis emoryi
Common Name: Desert Lavender
Type: Shrub
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Lantana montevidensis
Common Name: Trailing Lantana
Type: Groundcover
Notes: Adult and larval food
Genus Species: Leucophyllum spp.
Common Name: Texas Sages
Type: Shrub
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Oenothera caespitosa
Common Name: Evening Primrose
Type: Perennial
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Pasiflora foetida
Common Name: Passion flower
Type: Vine
Notes: Larval food
Genus Species: Penstemon spp.
Common Name: Penstemon
Type: Perennial
Notes: Larval food
Genus Species: Plumbago scandens
(Summer SnowTM)
Common Name: Plumbago
Type: Shrub
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Salvia clevelandii
Common Name: -
Type: Shrub
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Salvia greggii
Common Name: Autumn Sage
Type: Shrub
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Sphaeralcea ambigua
Common Name: Globe Mallow
Type: Perennial
Notes: Adult and larval food
Genus Species: Tagetes lemmonii
Common Name: Mt. Lemmon Marigold
Type: Perennial
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Verbena goodingii
Common Name: Desert Verbena
Type: Perennial
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Vitex agnus-castus
Common Name: Monk’s Pepper
Type: Tree
Notes: Adult food
Genus Species: Zinnia acerosa
Common Name: Desert Zinnia
Type: Perennial
Notes: Adult food

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