Arizona offers tremendous diversity in insect life, rivaled only by Texas, and that includes butterflies. According to the Arizona Cooperative Extension Journal, Arizona touts “250 species representing six families that are native to Arizona: Papilliondae (Swallowtails), Pieidae (Whites and Sulfurs), Lycaenidae(Blues) Hairstreaks and Metalmarks), Libytheidae (Snouts), Nymphalidae (Brushfoots), and Hesperiidae (Skippers).”
You can attract this amazing diversity into your own backyard by planting food sources for these beautiful insects. Before we learn what to plant, let’s explore a bit about the butterflies lifecycle. Butterflies begin as small eggs laid on or near a larval food plant. Eggs hatch and a caterpillar emerges and eats leaves from the larval food plant. Caterpillars take a few weeks to grow to full size before they enter their next stage when they pupate. In this stage the caterpillar enters the pupa stage or chrysalis on or near the larval food plant.
The butterfly will emerge after a few days to a couple of weeks. Most adults will only live a couple of weeks, drinking from nectar plants and mating. 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. Some species of butterfly are migratory; the Monarch butterfly is a great example of this. “In Arizona, a good backyard butterfly garden may attract 25 species of butterflies or more throughout the year. It is important to be observant. The tiniest of butterflies are easily overlooked,” says the Nature’s Archive blog.
Knowing this, you can see you will need both larval food plants and nectar food plants to have the greatest success in attracting butterflies. Gardeners tend to overlook larval food plants. Plants that produce food for larvae attract and keep adult butterflies in the garden. Some of the best attractants of butterflies are not flowers, but rather the leaves. But butterflies may also be attracted to plant saps, rotting fruit and animal waste.
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.
Gardener’s World carries many good butterfly attractants including: Red Bird of Paradise, Lantana (pictured left), Baja Red Fairy Duster, Desert Milkweed, Lysiloma, Regal Mist, Marigolds (seeds & starts), Sunflower (seeds), Zinnia (seeds & starts), Nasturtium (seeds), Gaillardia (seeds); Dill & Fennel (seeds) and Rosemary.
Make sure that most of the feeding plants are in full sun, or close to full sun. Brightly lit flowers seem to be a strong attractant. However, it’s important to have some shade in and near your garden. Butterflies must regulate their temperatures, and need places to “cool off.”
So, add some butterfly favorites to your yard this spring and start enjoying Arizona’s amazing desert diversity!
Written by Kari Pettersen