Gardening for the Love of Butterflies

Bonnie Nowicki, Master Gardener

A recent butterfly article in the SanDiego News gave me cause for concern about the noticeable decrease of butterflies everywhere. The article centered their attention on the tiny Quino checkerspot. Its remaining habitats are under threat from development projects, and environmental groups have filed a petition to have this butterfly added to the California list of endangered species. Time will tell if efforts are successful.

Occasionally, most of us observe a graceful butterfly gliding through our landscapes. Arizona’s butterfly diversity ranks second to none in the United States. Some to look for are Blues, Hairstreaks, Coppers, and Swallowtails. Attracting butterflies to our gardens takes a little effort. If you want them to linger, please follow these suggestions.

Ideal shelter for butterflies are fences, garden walls, trellises, and rocks for resting. Butterflies feed in moist areas, often grouping together in a behavior called puddling. Water in your garden is a must. Familiar weeds are a good source for food and protection, so leave a little patch somewhere. Mid to late summer is when most butterflies are active. The average lifespan of a butterfly is about one month, although Monarchs may live nine months.

Butterflies prefer brightly colored fragrant flowers. They especially like variety. They seek out sunny open areas, protected from the wind to warm themselves. Butterflies need a place to lay eggs, they need food plants for the larvae and a place to form a chrysalis. They also need nectar sources for the adult. Adult butterflies searching for nectar are attracted to red, yellow, orange, pink, or purple blossoms that are clustered or flat-topped and have short flower tubes which allow them to reach the nectar.

You’ll need plants to support all phases of their life cycle. Group the same type of flowers together. The top three nectar bearing food plants for butterflies are aster, butterfly weed, and purple coneflower. Other plant suggestions are common milkweed, marigold, chives, wallflower, bee balm, verbena, phlox, yarrow, zinna, cosmos, mint, oregano, lavender, calendula, golden alyssum, penstemon, lantana, butterfly bush, and hyssop. Remember chemicals in the garden destroy the beneficial insects. Killing caterpillars destroys future butterflies. Garden wisely and the butterflies will come. Enjoy the gifts that nature brings.