Tucson is a great place to see a diverse array of butterflies, with some 250 species said to be found in the Sonoran Desert, and verified sightings of 216 different species in Pima County . Many of these species reside here year-round, while others seek their favorite nectar or larval plants as they travel through. August is the peak of our butterfly season, as both the migratory and the sedentary species find their favorite food plants actively growing and blooming after the summer monsoons.
This week, our Garden Club members can take advantage of a sale on milkweeds, which are a very important source of nectar and larval food for many butterfly species, including the beloved Monarch. So, while you’re at the nursery stocking up on milkweed, make sure to ask one of our Garden Professionals to show you some of the other great butterfly plants that we keep in stock, too!
If you prefer to do some research and planning from home, an advanced search of our catalog will return a list of plants for our region that attract lots of butterflies; just follow this link, choose “butterflies” under the “attracts” heading, then click the search button. We also have a butterfly garden how-to page with a list of butterfly favorites.
Though there are definitely exceptions, the plants that butterflies frequent for nectar can often be recognized by the type of flowers they have. Flowers that fall into one of the following three categories are likely to be a hit:
1. Butterflies love to sip nectar from flowers that are made up of clusters of smaller blooms, such as Lantana, Verbena, Buddleja, and Asclepias (milkweed).
2. They also like sunflower-like blooms with a flat landing pad in the center where they can rest while dining.
3. Feather-like flowers are another favored source of nectar for adult butterflies.
Here are some additional tips for attracting butterflies and keeping them around:
Since adult butterflies tend to feed in the sunshine, and can’t get around very well when it’s windy, it’s important to locate your nectar-providing plants in sunny locations that are protected from heavy winds. It’s also a good idea to stage a few flat rocks in protected, sunny locations where butterflies can safely rest and warm themselves.
Butterflies need water and other minerals, too, and they get their fill by “puddling” on patches of damp soil or small, shallow pools of water. You can provide a place for puddling by keeping a layer of coarse, damp sand in a shallow dish on the ground.
Providing food for caterpillars is also important if you want butterflies to stick around. Feeding caterpillars can be a bit more difficult than feeding the adults because caterpillars are much pickier eaters. Monarch caterpillars, for example, will only eat milkweeds, while the caterpillars of giant swallowtails prefer to eat citrus leaves. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a wonderful butterfly information page that discusses the larval foods preferred by the different butterfly families in Arizona. Don’t worry too much about your beloved plants being chewed; unless you have a heavy butterfly infestation (prettiest infestation ever?), most established landscape plants can easily recover from the minimal damage done by a few hungry caterpillars.
Use as many native plants as possible, as natives are more easily recognized and more frequently visited by local wildlife. In fact, Monarch protection agencies advise planting only native species of milkweed to prevent interruption of the Monarch’s natural migration habits that rely partially on availability of nectar in specific places at specific times.
Variety is a good thing, too. Different types of flowers with different blooming times, paired with a few caterpillar favorites, will keep the butterflies happy in your garden all year long!