The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension (reg)

  About the Journal



  This Issue:
   From Me to You
   Calendar of Events
   Things to Expect & Do
   Word Wise
   Ask A Gardener
   Tomatoes in the
              Desert Garden
   Creating A Butterfly
   Sacred Datura:
              Moonlight Magic
   Computer Corner
   Book Review
   Stories to Delight
              Young Readers
   New Publications
   BCI Celebrates 20th
   Garden Recycling
   Designing Your Own
              Desert Oasis
   Herbs for the Bath
             Evergreen Trees
   Center for Native &
              Urban Wildlife
   January Citrus Clinic

Master Gardener Journal  

C R E A T U R E   C O M F O R T S

Creating a Butterfly Garden

by Debora Villa,
Master Gardener Intern

Caterpillar Everyone loves butterflies. Their movements and color add beauty to our environment. Now that I have small children, the benefits of a butterfly garden go well beyond beauty. It can also be a wonderful tool for helping youngsters learn about ecology, native plants, and insect life cycles. Beyond that, butterfly gardens can help return native plants to the area, and preserve threatened species in danger of loosing their habitats.

Butterflies and moths are arthropods belonging to the insect order Lepidoptera. Their life cycle consists of four phases: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and finally butterfly. They serve as pollinators and are a source of food for some animals. As such, their presence is an indicator of the health of the environment.

Butterflies vary widely in color and size. There are 760 species in North America, and over 250 species representing six families that are native to Arizona. The six families are: Papilliondae (Swallowtails), Pieidae (Whites and Sulfurs), Lycaenidae (Blues, Hairstreaks and Metalmarks), Libytheidae (Snouts), Nymphalidae (Brushfoots), and Hesperiidae (Skippers).

Butterflies can travel for miles, and are capable of identifying plants from great distances. Each type of butterfly has its favorite plant foods, and they also have color preferences. The caterpillars seem to be especially fussy eaters.

A butterfly garden can be any size, but plant selection is an important factor. Many of the native and desert-adapted plants available at local nurseries attract butterflies; but besides the plant's attractiveness to butterflies, you should also consider factors such as water requirements and adaptation to sun and temperature extremes.

Butterflies are most often attracted to a plant's flowers. Mass plantings of flowers usually do a better job of attracting butterflies than a single plant. Look for plants with wide, shallow flowers, or those with clusters of flowers that, together, provide good perching platforms. Color is an important factor, with white considered the most inferior. Well-known butterfly favorites include zinnia, marigold, daisy, thistle, and butterfly bush.

SwallowtailFlowers attract butterflies by providing nectar, but they may also be attracted to plant saps, rotting fruit, and animal waste. To have a true butterfly garden, you must also feed the larva . Plants that produce food for larvae attract and keep adult butterflies in the garden, as well.

"Desert Butterfly Gardening", by the Arizona Native Plant Society and the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute, provides an excellent list of plants that attract butterflies. It includes colored pictures. The Desert Botanical Garden publishes a list of butterfly visitors that includes information on larval foods.


Fern Acacia (Acacia angustissima) not only attracts butterflies, but also is larval plant food for the Yellow Mexican Sulfur.

Butterfly Mist or Butterfly Blue(TM) (Ageratum corymbs) has a blue flower and tasty nectar. It attracts male Queens. (An alkaloid in the flower is ingested and used as an aphrodisiac to attract females).

Bee Brush (Aloysius gratissima) is scrappy in appearance, but has a remarkable fragrance. Gray Hairstreaks and Queens are attracted to this plant.

Pineleaf Milkweed (Asclepias linaria) is a major food source for caterpillars of Queen and Monarch butterflies. They eat the leaves and flowers of A. linaria, as well as those of Desert Milkweed (A. subulata) and Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa).

Sweet Bush (Bebbia juncea) is an extremely drought-tolerant native plant that attracts all sizes of butterflies, including Checkered Skippers.

Mallow (Malva) is also a larval food plant for the Checkered Skipper, as is Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), a native grass. Orange Skippers eat other grasses, such as Bamboo Muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa).

Red Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) attracts Swallowtails, Sulfurs and some Skippers.

Pipevine (Aristolochia microphylla) is a larval plant food for Swallowtails, one of the largest butterflies.

Desert Hackberry (Celtis pallida) is a native larval food plant that can attract both the Snouts and Empress Leilias. Empress Leilias feed on sap and rotting fruit in preference to flowers.

Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) is an excellent nectar bush. Reakirt's Blues will often be observed swarming this bush in the fall.

Black Dalea (Dalea frutescens) attracts Southern Dogface caterpillars.

Golden Dyssodia (Dyssodia pentachaeta), a native, provides food and nectar for the Dainty Sulfur butterfly and caterpillar.

Spreading Fleabane (Erigeron divergens), a member of the sunflower family, may bring Buckeyes to your yard. You can also try other sunflower family members, such as Cosmos and Mountain Marigold.

Kidneywood (Eysenhardtia orthocarpa) has a white, fragrant flower that attracts butterflies, bees, wasps, and flies. Butterflies most likely to be seen will be Hairstreaks and Blues. Kidneywood provides larval food for the Marine Blue, which is tended by ants.

Lantana (Lantana camara) draws the Giant Swallowtail and Fiery Skipper. Swallowtail caterpillars eat cultivated citrus, and Fiery Skippers eat Bermuda grass. It is not necessary to plant citrus to attract the Swallowtail. Trailing Lantana (Lantana montevidensis) attracts all types of butterflies, and is a favorite of the Painted Lady.

Wolfberry (Lycium berlandieri) has a long blooming period, and its nectar attracts both bees and butterflies, including the Funereal Duskywing, a Skipper.

Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) is a groundcover. It has a tiny pale lilac flower that attracts Blues, Hairstreaks and Skippers. It is also food for the Refh Crescent. Cultivation of this plant may help re-establish the Phaon Crescent.

Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina) leaves are eaten by Leda Hairstreaks, and provide attractive shade for your garden.

Desert Senna (Senna covesii) serves as larval plant food for the Sleepy Orange and the Cloudless. It is also a native plant.

Verbena (Verbena gooddingii) is a native with colorful blooms. It draws many types of butterflies, American Lady among them.


Begeman, John.
Gardening Tips.

Lazaroff, David Wentworth.
Book Of Answers.

Werner, Floyd, P h.D., and Carl Olsen, M.S.
Insects of the Southwest.

Arizona Native Plant Society and the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute.
"Desert Butterfly Gardening."

The Urban Gardener.

Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated January 25, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
Comments to 4341 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040,
Voice: (602) 470-8086 ext. 301, Fax (602) 470-8092