When you consider the desert, butterflies are probably not the first things that come to mind. However, when you think about it, butterflies are everywhere. The North American Butterfly Association (NABA) tells us that of the 725 species found in North America, approximately 575 of them occur in the lower 48 states, getting much more prevalent the closer to Mexico you get. Several species can be found in Arizona, and many are here year round. You might be asking, if they are so abundant, why maintain a butterfly garden?
Reason 1: They are fun to watch. Unlike honeybees, butterflies flutter from plant-to-plant in search of nectar, pausing just long enough for us to enjoy their elegance. They grace us with their presence, adding an ephemeral beauty that is unsurpassed.
Reason 2: They are great pollinators. Though probably not as efficient as honeybees, butterflies do their share of contributing to pollination. With total species around 20,000, butterflies are found in all parts of the world.
Reason 3: By helping to increase the world’s population of butterflies, you are being a good steward of the earth. According to the Nature Conservancy, monarch butterflies have declined by as much as 59% in the last year alone. There is a lot of speculation as to the reasons for this phenomenon. Among them is pesticide use, and logging in Mexican forests. The good news is that the more people become aware of the situation, the more of us can help.
An effective butterfly habitat contains four important elements.
- Host plants: Also known as larval plants, these provide food for the larval (caterpillar) stage.
- Nectar plants: These plants provide food at the post-larval stage, after butterflies have emerged from their cocoons. Brightly colored flowers are good, but not all flowers produce a lot of nectar. Avoid deep flowers like petunias. Note that mass plantings will attract more butterflies than individual plants scattered throughout the garden.
- A large tree: Butterflies are diurnal, meaning that they are most active during the daytime. A tree can provide protection from afternoon heat, and a place to rest at night.
- A water source: All living creatures need water. This element can be as elaborate as a fountain, or as simple as a puddle of water in the ground, covered over with wet sand.
Here is a list of some of the plants you may want to consider. A more complete plant list is provided by NABA.
Host Plants (A = annual / P = perennial)
Milkweed (Very important for attracting monarchs.) (P)
Passion vine (P)
Nectar Plants (A = annual / P = perennial)
Bee balm (P)
Black-eyed Susan (P)
Blanket flower (P)
Butterfly bush (P)
Coreopsis daisies (P)
Pincushion flower (A)
Purple coneflower (P)
Sweet alyssum (A)
One last element that should not be overlooked––a place for you to sit and enjoy all of the beautiful butterflies that your garden will now attract!