Xeriscaping: Butterfly Gardens

We all like to have butterflies in the garden, but you may be thinking about re-landscaping your yard using the water conservation principles of Xeriscaping and worried that the new plants in your landscape will no longer attract the swallowtails, sulphurs and gossamers you love. In this article we will look at what plants attract which butterflies and how to incorporate them into your landscape design.

Flowering plants produce flowers rich in nectar to attract pollinators. Each butterfly species selects certain plants from which to feed depending on its proboscis. Some have long proboscis and feed from tubular flowers, other have short ones and so can only utilize flowers with nectar near the surface. Sometimes the plant color is an important variable as well as the way the flowers are grouped, providing a landing area. Selecting appropriate ‘host’ plants is important also. Make sure you know what plants your favorite butterfly species prefers to lay eggs on and which plants caterpillars like to chow down on.

Swallowtails are the largest and most flamboyant of the butterflies. Some of the local varieties we might enjoy are the Pipevine, Black and Giant Swallowtail. They will feed on milkweed, lantana, pentas, marigolds, verbena, and of course the butterfly bush. If you want to keep the black swallowtail caterpillar happy, plant some dill and bronze fennel. They love it. The giant prefers to host in citrus plants and trees, especially hardy varieties.

Monarchs are our only true migrant butterfly. I imagine the government is looking for a way to stop them crossing the border from Mexico. Upon their return in the spring they will lay eggs on the first milkweed they see. In Central Texas look to plant the Texas Milkweed, Asclepias texana, part of the acanthus family. Milkweeds have low amounts of the toxic alkaloid monarchs use for defense – becoming unpalatable to warm-bloodied predators upon ingestion. They will look for nectar plants like the butterfly bush (Buddleia), lantanas, pentas, asters and purple coneflowers.

The Checkered White is not considered a pest like the Cabbage White, but unfortunately the latter is quite aggressive and will drive the checkered white away into meadows and fallow fields. To attract the checkered, plant native wildflowers and milkweed. Try using fall blooming asters like A. frikarti.

Clouded and Orange Sulphurs are fairly ubiquitous across much of the continent and are resident in the southwest where it is warmer. They will stop at any lawn that has clover in it, and are attracted by the usual plants such as butterfly bush and asters. But their favorite flower to nectar on is marigolds, so plant this as a border. An added benefit is that marigolds can help deter destructive insects in the garden, but I talk more about that in my article on companion planting.

Gossamer butterflies are aptly named, they are so light and delicate. They are huge in number and variety and normally perch high in trees, descending to feed on their favorite plants. Protect the mistletoe in your trees to encourage the Great Purple Hairstreak to host. This is one of the most beautiful and tropical looking butterflies with a grooved underside to reflect a shimmering blue and hair-like tails on the hind wings that give the butterfly its name. It nectars on goldenrod and wild plums. Other varieties are attracted to virburnum, milkweed, coreopsis and black-eyed Susans.

Gulf Fritillaries are a sight to behold with their brilliant red and orange upper side and an underside painted with silvery metallic-like spots. To attract them plant a native passion vine and they will stick around until the first frost. They like to nectar on verbena and lantana.

So, we can see that a host of Xeriscape-type plants can be employed to attract butterflies, so when designing a landscape think about incorporating plants that have a good flower grouping, like the lantanas and verbenas, and the daisy types such as black-eyed Susan, ox-eye daisy, coreopsis and fall aster.