Celebrate Pollinators with a Butterfly Garden

In honor of National Pollinator Week, let’s look at how to have a Southwestern butterfly garden! There are over 250 species of lepidoptera (butterflies, skippers, and moths) that call the Southwest home, so there are many to attract! There are five simple steps to creating a butterfly garden for both you and them to enjoy.

Select a quiet, protected, sunny site for your butterfly garden.

Protected. Butterflies need protection from wind when feeding. Given the large sail area of their wings, they can literally be blown away.
Quiet. Too much coming and going will discourage butterflies. If they are chased off feeding sites (by pets or children) two or three times then they may just leave. Try to find a quiet corner for them.
Sunny. Butterflies are cold-blooded and need sunlight to warm the muscles they use to fly. Consider a large decorative boulder in your butterfly garden. This gives them somewhere to sit and warm, or to simply rest.
Protected. Butterflies also need some shade. They need to get out of the hot summer sun, and to rest from feeding. Evergreen shrubs will provide protection from intense heat, cold, or wind.

An evergreen butterfly shrub could even be silver-green, like the woolly butterfly bush (Buddleia marrubifolia). Photo courtesy of Stan Shebs.

Plant diversity and variety are important.

To attract many different species, you will need different foods over a long season. While adult butterflies are beautiful, the babies are less so. You will need to provide food for both caterpillars and adults.

Tolerate some feeding by butterfly larvae. Most plants grow back even if all leaves are eaten.

Attract with favorite butterfly colors.

You will need masses of color. Butterflies have very tiny brains. Highly visible masses of their food plants are needed to attract them to the garden. Especially plant flowers of white, purple and yellow, their favorite colors. They are less attracted to orange, red, or blue flowering plants. Since individual plants are relatively small, you will need to plant a cluster of plants for ease of fly-by recognition.


Clusters of color are important, like masses of lantana.


Provide a water source.

Every living thing needs water. Butterflies are no exception. A patch of moist soil makes them happy and won’t attract mosquitoes. You could add a dripper that simply wets bare soil (raked clear of rock mulch) to your irrigation system.

Avoid using pesticides or gene altered plants.

The bacteria known as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is deadly to all members of the Lepidoptera, butterflies and moths, both adults and larvae. Bt is now artificially cloned into a number of plants (creating GMO plants) and it kills any lepidoptera that land on that plant.

Food, water, and shelter are the prime requisites for all living things. If you provide the right kind of food, a little water, and some shelter, you should have some butterflies fluttering by your yard to delight you. Learn more in my book Butterfly Gardening for Southern Arizona.” Currently available at Rillito Nursery and Tohono Chul Park. Signed copies for sale after any of my talks.

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