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Butterfly Gardening with Native Plants of the Desert Southwest.

by Karen Hillson

Pipevine swallowtail.
  Pipevine Swallowtail.
Photo by Karen Hillson.

Each time you watch a lemon-yellow Cloudless Sulphur flutter through your yard, or rush to get a glimpse of a Western Pygmy Blue perched atop a saltbush, you are witnessing a miracle. An adult butterfly may be the sole survivor of hundreds of siblings; it has eluded a host of predators both large and small, and has but a week or two to find a mate so its progeny can begin the cycle anew.

The lifestyle of the scaled and beautiful is a hazardous one, but the urban gardener can provide a nurturing habitat with cultivated native plants and a few weedy patches.

American lady on butterfly bush.
American Lady on butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii.
Photo by Karen Hillson.

Butterflies are often observed nectaring at flowers. Not all butterflies require nectar; however, all need their foodplant, the plant the caterpillar eats before it forms a chrysalis. While many nectar plants are sold at nurseries, some foodplants are not always available. Aristolochia watsonii (desert pipevine), for example, the hostplant for the gorgeous Pipevine Swallowtail, was not sold at native plant sales until recently.

Saltbush (Atriplex canescens and Atriplex lentiformis) is extremely drought-tolerant, an ideal choice for the arid zone of the garden. The foodplant for what may be the world’s smallest butterfly, the Western Pygmy Blue, saltbush is sometimes available at nurseries. This tough shrub requires little or no supplemental water after the first two years, and pruning is unnecessary. Its silver leaves make it an attractive addition to a moonlight garden. Plant a few saltbushes and in September you may discover dozens of tiny copper-winged jewels flitting through your garden! Children enjoy looking for the minute grayish-green caterpillars that are a perfect match in color and texture for the leaves. Their camouflage is so effective that often the only way to find them is to seek out the ants tending them.

American lady caterpillar on cudweed.
  American Lady caterpillar on cudweed.
Photo by Karen Hillson.

It is surprising that more gardeners do not plant native sennas, such as Senna covesii, Senna leptocarpa, and Senna wislizenii; they are hostplants for cloudless sulphurs and sleepy oranges. Be sure to select an indigenous senna, and not an Australian species, for the exotics are almost always poisonous to the young caterpillars.

Although most native sennas are dormant in the wintertime, Senna purpusii is the glorious exception. This unusual senna bursts into bloom in October, and will brighten the garden all winter long if the weather is mild. The yellow flowers create a striking contrast against the dark blue-green leaves.

Cloudless sulphur butterfly.
Cloudless Sulphur on Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii.
Photo by Karen Hillson.

Most gardeners vigorously object to weeds, but they play an important role in the life cycle of many butterflies. To attract different species, consider designating some areas of the garden as “no-pull” zones. Painted Ladies and American Ladies, for example, lay their eggs on cudweed. The caterpillars sew themselves into the leaves of their hostplant to protect them from predators. Plant lantana for nectar and you will be rewarded with daily visits from your lovely ladies.

Sara and ‘Pima’ Desert Orangetips utilize wild mustards as foodplants. Many plants in the mustard family are considered common weeds, and are hastily removed. You may decide to leave some mustards untouched if you wish to see this dazzling harbinger of spring.

Queen butterfly on jojoba.
  Queen butterfly on jojoba.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

The palette of plants that lure butterflies may surprise you: Common Checkered Skipper caterpillars feast on silvery globemallows; the offspring of Monarchs and Queens prefer the green needle-like leaves of pineleaf milkweed; Gulf Fritillaries lay their eggs on twining, climbing passionvines.

Attractive, economical, and beneficial to the environment, butterfly gardening may play a significant role in the future of horticulture. Arid-adapted perennials and shrubs support wildlife with little watering and minimal care.

Senna purpusii.
Winter-blooming Senna purpusii.
Photo by Karen Hillson.

Varying colors, leaf textures, and forms can be incorporated into a variety of landscaping styles. A kinetic element is added to the garden by fluttering, dipping and soaring butterflies. Children can learn about the natural world by exploring the habitat with parents and teachers. For gardeners of all ages, each new season brings the anticipation of still more discoveries in a delightfully mysterious world.

For more information on butterflies and butterfly gardening in your area, visit the North American Butterfly Association website.


Karen Hillson is an art historian in Tucson, Arizona. She received her doctorate from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is a past president of the Southeast Arizona Butterfly Association and the editor of Butterfly Gardener.
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Title background photo, Gulf Fritillary, by Karen Hillson.


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