Attract Butterflies: Desert Southwest

Lynn Coulter
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Butterflies bring movement and color to our gardens. Welcome these winged visitors to your Southwest garden with an island bed filled with plants for caterpillars and adults.

Begin by offering your butterflies the essentials:

  • A few flat stones or pavers, so they can rest and warm themselves in the sun.
  • A spot for “puddling,” so they can drink water and extract minerals. Make a puddle by filling a shallow pan with damp sand and putting it in the island bed. Keep the soil moist.
  • An pesticide-free zone. Avoid using chemicals anywhere butterflies visit.
  • Nectar plants for adult butterflies and foliage and other food plants for caterpillars. Use flowers that bloom in succession, and plant in masses of color to help the butterflies find them. Red, yellow, pink, purple and orange blossoms with short tubes or flattened flower heads are best.

Butterflies For Desert Southwest gardens

Anise Swallowtail, Pipevine Swallowtail, and Western Tiger Swallowtail– Swallowtails are big, beautiful butterflies with a distinctive “forked tail” on their hind wings. They’re attracted to garden flowers and native plants like Dutchman’s pipe (sometimes called pipevine) and milkweed. As their name implies, Anise Swallowtails will visit anise, a member of the parsley family cultivated for its aromatic seeds.

Monarchs – Its familiar orange and black wings make the Monarch one of our most popular butterflies. Females lay their eggs only on milkweed plants, and the caterpillars eat only milkweed–a good reason to leave a few ungroomed or weedy patches around your yard. Each fall, migrating monarchs journey to Mexico.

Variegated Fritillary and Gulf Fritillary – These tawny orange and brown butterflies have dots and dark markings on their upper wings. The Gulf “Frit” uses passionflowers as a host plant for caterpillars; it can’t venture too far north, as it perishes in freezing winter temperatures. Adults visit hisbiscus, pentas, and lantanas.

Painted Lady – Painted ladies can be recognized by the orange and brown splotches on their wings and splashes of pink on their forewings. American Painted Ladies have two blue “eyes” on the underside of their hing wings; they’re scarce in some years while their numbers seem to explode in others.

And many more – Look for a field guide to butterflies in your region to discover other fascinating and beautiful species.

A sampler of plants To Grow In your butterfly island bed:

Herbs

Dill, parsley, coriander, yarrow, anise, fennel

flowers and other nectar plants

Desert pipevine, sunflower, lantana, pentas, scabiosa, zinnia, passionflower, sage, salvia, penstemon, Rudbeckia daisy

Shrubs

Viburnum, Mexican heather, butterfly bush, bird of paradise, senna

Dress up your island butterfly bed with an ornamental butterfly house. It’s easy to build from a kit and makes a fun family project.

Image credit, Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly: Shutterstock/Karen Givens

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