Butterfly Gardening - February 28, 2018
Jeff Schalau, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County

Over 350 butterfly species have been found in Arizona. Our ecosystem diversity, large land area, and proximity to the subtropics certainly contribute to this fantastic array. Dedicated gardeners can create butterfly habitats that attract multiple species of butterflies to your landscape. There are many books and web sites that can help you create butterfly gardens and identify the butterflies that visit your garden. This column will hopefully pique your interest and give you some basic information to get you started with butterfly gardening.

As most people know, butterflies go through a four-stage developmental process known as metamorphosis (egg, larva or caterpillar, pupa or chrysalis, and adult). Understanding a butterfly's life cycle can make observing them more enjoyable and give you a greater appreciation of butterfly gardening. Depending on the species, the life cycle of a butterfly (one generation) may take anywhere from about one month to an entire year. Usually, the most common butterflies are multiple-brooded and provide a continuous array of color and activity to your butterfly garden throughout the season.

Although plant selection and placement are the most effective methods to attract butterflies, site selection for a butterfly garden is also important. Butterflies like sunny sites and areas sheltered from high winds. Warm, sheltered sites are most needed in the spring and fall. Provide rocks or bricks for pupation sites and for basking and warming in the sun. Butterflies require food plants for their larval stages and nectar plants for the adult stage. Some larvae feed on specific host plants, while others will feed on a variety of plants. Well-planned butterfly gardens include both larval host plants and adult nectar plants. Wet soil or areas around ponds are frequently visited by male butterflies — a behavior called "puddling" which they extract sodium and other nutrients needed for mating.

A few woody plants in the butterfly garden will provide protection from predators, offer shelter, a place to lay eggs, and a place to attach chrysalides. It can be relatively simple to attract butterflies and still have a garden that suits your tastes and needs. Nectar flowers and other favorite butterfly plants come in many forms--annuals, perennials, herbs, vines, grasses, shrubs, and trees.

Plants with clusters of flowers are often better than plants with small, single flowers because it is easier for butterflies to land on clustered and/or larger flowers. Planting in mass (several plants of the same kind) will usually attract more butterflies, as there is more nectar available to them at a single stop. Select plants adapted to your site and location, and develop a plan for the butterfly garden. In addition, pesticides should not be used in or near butterfly gardens. This includes Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which is a toxin to caterpillars.

Some plants that provide food for butterfly larvae include: cabbage, common sunflower, lamb’s quarter, snapdragon, hollyhock, Queen Anne’s lace, dill, parsley, fennel, alfalfa, aster, clover, mallow, milkweed, and grasses. Some common nectar producing plants include: cosmos, zinnia, nasturtium, marigold, petunia, sweet alyssum, catnip, mint, chives, blanket flower, chrysanthemum, phlox, pinks, and yarrow.

Monarch butterflies have been a subject of increasing concern as their numbers have decreased greatly at overwintering sites in Mexico and California. Reasons for the decline in monarch butterflies vary from place to place but include the loss of wild milkweed populations (larval food plants), pesticide use in agriculture and urban areas, climate change, and logging and development of overwintering sites. Several local efforts are under way to increase the availability milkweeds and “tag” migrating adults as the pass through Arizona. These citizen science efforts monitor preferred milkweed species used for food, migration routes used, and ultimately which monarchs are successfully arriving at overwintering sites.

I have linked several resources below. There are multiple groups conducting milkweed out planting/observation and tagging monarchs in northern Arizona. The linked resources should help interested readers learn more about the local efforts and get involved with monarch research.

Follow the Backyard Gardener on Twitter – use the link on the BYG website. If you have other gardening questions, call the Master Gardener help line in the Camp Verde office at 928-554-8992 or e-mail us at verdevalleymg@gmail.com and be sure to include your name, address and phone number. Find past Backyard Gardener columns or provide feedback at the Backyard Gardener web site: http://cals.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/byg/.

Additional Resources

Butterfly Gardening in the Low Desert
University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County


Butterfly Gardening
University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources


Attracting Butterflies to the Garden
Colorado State University Extension


Monarch Conservation
Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation


Southwest Monarch Study

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: February 21, 2018
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