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Butterflies in Your Backyard - Part 2

By Kirti Mathura


IF YOU ARE SERIOUS about enjoying exquisite butterflies in your garden, you will need to feed their young… with your landscape plants. Some lost foliage or bloom is a small sacrifice to make in order to have such beauty grace your garden!

Adult butterflies generally sip nectar from a broad range of plants. In contrast, each type tends to use a specific plant, or closely related group of plants, upon which to lay eggs. If you are attempting to lure a particular kind of native butterfly to your garden you will need to know the preferred host plant, or larval food plant, to include in your plant palette. After the eggs hatch, tiny caterpillars (or larvae) begin munching the larval food plants. They will eat their fill until they become large enough to pupate, each forming a chrysalis from which the next generation of enchanting adults will emerge.

Don’t be concerned if a caterpillar crawls away from the host plant when it is ready to pupate, seeking a sheltered spot on another type of plant. Remember to not use chemicals around your butterfly garden, especially Bt (Bacillus thurengiensis) which is a powder often used to kill undesirable caterpillars. Not only will it kill loopers and tomato hornworms, but it will also eliminate your desirable butterfly caterpillars if it comes in contact with the plants they eat.

A wide range of plants from trees, to groundcovers, and everything in between may accommodate caterpillar development. If you like variety, mix plantings from the list of larval food plants and see what type of butterflies you attract.

Our Desert Milkweed (Asclepias subulata) is not only a nectar source for queen and monarch adults, but it also serves as caterpillar food for both. The queens will munch young tender leaves on new stem growth, as well as flower buds and blooms. Since the plant will continue to develop new buds throughout the warm season, and foliage only persists for a very short time before dropping from the plant naturally, you really aren’t losing much. Monarchs tend to become active later in the fall season. They both develop jewel-like chrysalids when pupating to change to their final form as adults.

If you are interested in attracting the gulf fritillaries that appear as though someone painted spots of silver on the undersides of their delicate orange wings, plant passion flower vines. The Mexican Passion Flower (Passiflora mexicana) and Blue Passion Flower (P. caerulea) tend to be evergreen in the low desert, whereas in extreme cold Maypop Passion Flower (P. incarnata) will drop its leaves. All species produce unique frilly lavender, purple, and white flowers of differing sizes with variable foliage. They serve as host plants for the orange, black, and white caterpillars that develop chrysalis cases that look like furled leaves. The vines will thrive in morning sun exposure, and with careful watering they can endure full-day sun through the summer.

Other odd-flowered host plants to include in your garden are the pipevines or Dutchman’s pipes. Both the native Watson’s Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia watsoni) and nonnative White-veined Dutchman’s Pipe (A. fimbriata) have a vining groundcover growth habit with reddish-brown blooms shaped like curved pipes, during the warm season. Tuck the pipevines into a lightly shaded area of your garden, or full sun with adequate water. These both attract the blue-black pipevine swallowtails for egg laying and development of the reddish-orange and black caterpillars.

Butterfly gardening can truly be rewarding. It is exciting to discover the life cycles of these fascinating creatures right in your own backyard. You can find many plants perfect for creating your own butterfly paradise at the Desert Botanical Garden’s spring plant sale March 15th and 16th (Friday March 14th for members). Small infinity logo (end of article)

Nectar Plants for Butterflies


  • Celtis pallida – Desert Hackberry
  • Celtis reticulata - Canyon Hackberry, Netleaf Hackberry
  • Fraxinus spp. – Ash
  • Lysiloma watsonii v. thurberi – Desert-fern, Feather Bush
  • Prosopis juliflora – Mesquite
  • Salix spp. – Willows


  • Acacia angustissima – Fern Acacia
  • Asclepias linaria – Thread-leaf Milkweed, Pine-leaf Milkweed
  • Asclepia subulata – Desert Milkweed
  • Atriplex canescens – Four-wing Saltbush
  • Atriplex lentiformis – Quail Bush
  • Calliandra californica – Baja Fairyduster
  • Calliandra eriophylla – Pink Fairyduster
  • Cleome isomeris (Isomeris arborea) – Bladderpod
  • Convolvulus cneorum – White Bush Morning Glory
  • Dalea spp. – Daleas
  • Dalea pulchra – Indigo Bush
  • Ericameria nauseosa (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) – Chamisa, Rubber Rabbit Brush
  • Eriogonum spp. – Buckwheat
  • Justicia spp. – Justicias Justicia californica – Chuparosa
  • Purshia mexicana (Cowania mexicana) – Cliffrose
  • Ruellia peninsularis – Desert Ruellia
  • Senna artemisioides – Feathery Senna, Feathery Cassia


  • Astragalus spp. – Vetches
  • Bouteloua curtipendula – Sideoats Grama
  • Bouteloua gracilis – Blue Grama
  • Calylophus drummondianus - Sundrops
  • Justicia candicans (J. ovata) – Red Justicia, Hummingbird Bush
  • Justicia spicigera – Firecracker Bush
  • Linum lewisii – Blue Flax
  • Penstemon spp. – Penstemons
  • Penstemon baccharifolius – Rock Penstemon
  • Penstemon eatoni – Firecracker Penstemon
  • Penstemon palmeri – Palmer Penstemon
  • Penstemon parryi – Parry Penstemon
  • Penstemon pseudospectabilis – Canyon Penstemon
  • Phoradendron sp. – Mistletoe
  • Ruellia brittoniana – Ruellia
  • Senna covesii – Desert Senna
  • Thymophylla pentachaeta (Dyssodia pentachaeta) – Golden Fleece
  • Verbena spp. – Verbenas


  • Amaranthus spp. – Amaranths
  • Castilleja spp. – Paintbrushes
  • Cirsium spp. – Thistles
  • Chenopodium spp. – Goosefoots
  • Helianthus annuus – Sunflower
  • Lupinus spp. – Lupines
  • Lupinus sparsiflorus – Desert Lupine
  • Lupinus succulentus – Arroyo Lupine
  • Machaeranthera bigelovii (Aster bigelovii) – Desert Aster
  • Malva neglecta – Cheeseweed
  • Medicago sativa - Alfalfa
  • Plantago spp. – Plantains
  • Portulaca oleracea – Purslane
  • Verbesina encelioides – Golden Crownbeard, Anil del Muerto


  • Aristolochia fimbriata – White-veined Dutchman’s Pipe
  • Aristolochia watsoni – Watson’s Dutchman’s Pipe
  • Lantana montevidensis – Trailing Lantana
  • Passiflora caerulea – Blue Passion Flower
  • Passiflora incarnata – Maypop Passion Flower
  • Passiflora mexicana – Mexican Passion Flower


  • Agave spp. – Agaves, Century Plants
  • Agave chrysantha – Golden-flowered Agave
  • Agave parryi – Parry Agave
  • Agave toumeyana – Toumey Agave
  • Yucca spp. – Yuccas
  • Yucca baccata – Banana-yucca
  • Yucca elata – Soaptree Yucca


  • Apiaceae – carrot relatives
  • Brassicaceae – cabbage relatives
  • Fabaceae – legumes
  • Malvaceae – mallows
  • Poaceae – grasses

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