Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
June, 2001
Regional Report

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A delightful garden visitor checks out a butterfly bush in bloom.

Bring on the Butterflies

Butterflies flitting about the garden are purely delightful. You can take your chances that butterflies will happen to find your yard, or you can attract them to your garden by growing specific plants. Butterflies are easy to attract if you understand their life cycle and what they need to survive.

The Life of a Butterfly

Butterflies evolve through four life stages: egg, larval, pupal, and adult. An adult butterfly lays eggs on its favored host plant. Each egg then hatches into a caterpillar, which eats the host plant's leaves for 2 to 4 weeks until it's full grown. Then the caterpillar pupates, surrounding itself with a protective casing called a chrysalis. Within the chrysalis, the caterpillar transforms into an adult butterfly and then emerges.

Attracting Butterflies

The most effective way to encourage butterflies to visit is to provide nectar sources for adults as well as food plants for caterpillars. Butterfly larvae (caterpillars) are selective and usually feed on just one or two types of plants. If your garden has some of these host plants (see below), the adult butterfly will consider it a good place to deposit its eggs. The more larvae your butterfly garden has, the more adult butterflies you'll eventually see flying about.

What do Butterflies Eat?

Butterflies are not as selective about food as caterpillars and will sip sugary nectar from the flowers of a wide variety of easy-to-grow plants. That said, butterflies prefer flowers with flat surfaces where they can perch while sipping. Plants with such flowers include aster, calendula, coreopsis, gaillardia, spreading fleabane, tithonia, zinnia, and mountain marigold (Tagetes lemonnii). Other favorites include lantana, mint, rosemary, salvia, and verbena.

Milkweed for Monarchs

Milkweed's flowers provide nectar for adult butterflies. Milkweed is also a host plant for the Queen and Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Some good milkweed choices for our area include pine leaf milkweed (Asclepias linaria), desert milkweed (A. subulata), and the butterfly weed (A. tuberosa). Passionvine (Passiflora foetida) is the favored host plant of the Gulf Fritallary, a showy reddish orange butterfly common to the Southwest.

Swallowtail Feed

Black Swallowtail caterpillars feed on both the leaves and flowers of dill, parsley, and fennel. These cool-season herbs grow easily in low desert gardens, so plant a few extra for the caterpillars and don't worry about the damage from their munching. Giant swallowtail larvae are most often seen on citrus trees. Also called "orange dogs," these caterpillars resemble bird droppings; it's nature's way of camouflaging them from hungry birds. Their feeding doesn't hurt the citrus.

More Butterfly Tips

Keep these other tips in mind when attracting butterflies to your garden. Butterflies like to rest on flat stones warming in the sun. They prefer sunny, windless conditions, and like shallow water sources. I use a low saucer filled with flat stones and 1 to 2 inches of water and tuck it into a sheltered location. Also, refrain from spraying pesticides whenever possible.

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