Would you like to be able to watch flocks of butterflies flutter by? Now is the time and Southern Arizona is the place. Late spring and early fall are peak butterfly viewing times throughout the area. There are over 250 species of lepidoptera that call the southwest home, so there are many to look for. For ease of viewing, entice these “flying flowers” into your yard. There are five simple steps to creating a habitat for them (and you) to enjoy.
• Select a quiet, protected, sunny site for your butterfly garden.
Butterflies need protection from wind when feeding. Given the large sail area of their wings, they can literally be blown away. Too much coming and going will also discourage butterflies. Try to find a quiet corner for them.
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.
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 shrub could even be silver-green, like the woolly butterfly bush (Buddleia marrubifolia).
• 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.
• 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.
• Provide a water source.
Every living thing needs water. Butterflies are no exception, and will appreciate a shallow puddle or patch of moist soil. A slow dripping emitter next to a water-loving plant can fulfill this need. Butterflies also need mineral salts. You could construct a “butterfly salt lick.” Mix composted steer manure into the soil and moisten it to provide salts for your butterflies.
• 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 artifically cloned into a number of 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.
(Editor’s Note: Jaqueline Soule will present a series of free lectures on gardening, including butterfly gardening at various Pima County Libraries. Learn more at www.library.pima.gov/calendar/. For a private consultation about landscape, call 909-3474.)