Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
November, 2006
Regional Report

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This lush passionflower vine attracts the Gulf fritillary butterfly.

Larval Food Plants for Butterfly Gardens

"Worms are devouring my butterfly garden," is a lament I periodically hear from a new gardener. Rather than cause for concern, it usually means that the plants are performing exactly as planned! Adult butterflies lay eggs on so-called host or larval food plants so that tiny caterpillars can start chomping on the foliage as soon as they hatch.

And they sure do chomp, buzz-sawing through foliage to fuel their fast growth rate. They typically have just a few weeks to prepare to pupate, which isn't long considering they have to change body types. I say, let them eat leaves! If a plant is otherwise healthy with an established root system, it can withstand some harvesting of its foliage. And, even if it doesn't recover, does it matter? After all, we planted a butterfly garden, right? If you are worried about a plant's survival, you can remove some caterpillars by handpicking. Also, birds will usually spot them fairly quickly, reducing their numbers drastically.

The sure-fire way to attract butterflies to your garden is to include both larval food plants and flowering plants for the adults. Butterflies use a long tongue-like proboscis to obtain nectar from flowers. They like wide, flat blooms that act as landing pads, but aren't limited by that and will seek nutrients from a wide variety of flowers. Most butterfly species are far pickier about plants that provide food for the larvae, depositing eggs on just one or two plant types. If you want to attract a particular butterfly species, the odds improve if you add its preferred larval host to your garden or landscape. Below are Southwestern native (except citrus) larval plants for butterfly species seen around the region.

Butterfly Larval Food Plants
Pipevine Swallowtail: pipevine (Aristolochia watsoni)

Giant Swallowtail: citrus and hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata). Citrus is frost-tender so suitable for low-desert landscapes only. Higher elevation gardeners could try growing a dwarf variety in a pot and bringing it indoors when temperatures drop. Hoptree is native to high elevations in pinyon-juniper woodlands and ponderosa forests.

Sleepy Orange Sulphur and Cloudless Sulphur: desert senna (Senna covesii); This drought-tolerant native perennial self-sows readily in low-desert landscapes.

Leda Ministreak, Ceraunus Blue, Palmer's Metalmark: mesquite (Prosopis spp.) Honey mesquite (P. glandulosa) has thornless selections that make lovely shade canopies for low-desert xeriscapes.

Gulf Fritillary: passionflower vines (Passiflora spp.); Passiflora foetida is native to Baja California and features an exotic-looking lavender and white flower.

Sagebrush Checkerspot: rabbitbrush/false goldenrod (Chrysothamnus nauseosus), a shrub that covers mid- to high-elevation range and roadsides with yellow flowers from late summer to fall.

Common Buckeye: more options than most. Try speedwell, plantain, and monkey flowers (Mimulus spp.). Natural habitat for Mimulus bigelovii is sandy, dry washes in low desert; M. cardinalis is found at mid and high elevations near moisture, such as seeps and streams.

California Sister: oaks (Quercus spp.); Gambel's oak (Q. gambelii) grows in high-elevation woodlands.

Monarch and Queen: milkweeds. Asclepias linaria and A. subulata perform well in low- to mid-level deserts; A. tuberosa is better at mid- to high-level elevations.

Arizona Powdered Skipper and Texas Powdered Skipper: mallow family (many choices); Superstition mallow (Abutilon palmeri) is an extremely drought-tolerant shrub with heart-shaped leaves that feel like velvet. Wildflower globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) is extremely drought tolerant, self-sows, and is available in orange, cherry, pink, rose, white, and lavender.

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