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McDonald Butterfly Garden

Butterflie … Flowers of the Air

Butterflies have always intrigued and delighted humans. We are transfixed by their brightly colored wings and floating motion. These delicate creatures are essential to the survival of many of our desert plants. This garden highlights the relationship of butterflies and southwest plants and other tips on creating your own butterfly garden.

Butterflies often form relationships with specific plants. Carefully chosen plants provide homes for the developing eggs and food for hungry larvae. Butterflies return the favor by pollinating plants with their long, flexible tongues. The partnership between insects and flowering plants began over a million years ago. The shapes, perfumes and colors of flowers were formed to attract insect pollinators like the butterfly. Likewise, the bodies and senses of butterflies are finely tuned to the rhythms of the host plants.

Butterflies and moths form the insect family, Lepidoptera, from the Greek word meaning scale-winged. Tiny scales make up bright and elaborate patterns of color on butterfly wings. Butterflies not only wear many colors, they also see more than we do, including ultraviolet colors. Many of their favorite flowers have ultraviolet colors as well. There are thought to be over 250 species of butterflies in the Sonoran Desert.

Follow the butterfly-shaped signs in this garden for tips on how to create your own butterfly habitat.


Butterflies have a life cycle that takes them through a complete metamorphosis (change of form). At each stage of the life the environmental needs of butterflies are different.

  • A butterfly begins life as an egg carefully laid on a host plant.
  • As the egg grows into a caterpillar or larva, it eats from the host and other plants.
  • After eating enough to continue the cycle, the larva prepares to pupate by forming a pupa or chrysalis.
  • When it emerges from this stage, it has wings and is a fully formed adult butterfly

This stage of life may last only a couple of weeks, but during that time most butterflies drink nectar from plants and perform the delicate task of pollination.

Migration or Emigration?

Some butterflies, like monarchs, migrate, traveling thousands of miles before returning to the same spot. Others, like painted ladies, emigrate or travel one direction only. As adult butterflies live only a few weeks or months, many die before making the entire trip.

When eggs deposited along the way become adult butterflies, they continue the migration begun by the previous generation. Traveling butterflies must stop along the way to rest and drink. Disruption of these sites can be harmful to thousands of butterflies that come together to roost and stay warm.

Painted ladies, one of the most common butterflies in our valley, are found worldwide. In our area these butterflies emigrate north from Mexico as temperatures warm and spring flowers bloom. They continue heading north until it is too cold or they run out of flowers. Their environment is often obstructed by freeway traffic.

For more information about butterflies and pollinators:

Botanical Name Common Name Family
Acaciella angustissima (syn. Acacia angustissima) Prairie Acacia Fabaceae
Ageratum corymbosum Butterfly Mist Asteraceae
Aloysia grattisima Beebrush Verbenaceae
Asclepias curassavica Blood Flower Apocynaceae
Asclepias subulata Desert Milkweed, Rush Milkweed Apocynaceae
Bahia absinthifolia Desert Bahia, Hairyseed Bahia Asteraceae
Bahiopsis parishii Goldeneye Asteraceae
Baileya multiradiata Desert Marigold Asteraceae
Berlandiera lyrata Chocolate Flower Asteraceae
Bidens nudata Baja Tickseed Asteraceae
Bouteloua curtipendula Side-oats Grama Poaceae
Buddleja marrubiifolia Woolly Butterfly Bush Buddlejaceae
Calliandra californica Baja Fairy Duster Fabaceae
Calliandra eriophylla Pink Fairy Duster Fabaceae
Caryopteris x clandonensis Dark Knight Dark Knight, Blue Mist Spirea Verbenaceae
Chilopsis linearis Desert Willow Bignoniaceae
Chrysactinia mexicana Damianita Asteraceae
Conoclinium greggii Boothill Boothill Mist Flower Asteraceae
Dombeya x Seminole Tropical Hydrangea Malvaceae
Duranta erecta Pigeon Berry, Skyflower Verbenaceae
Echinacea purpurea Purple Coneflower Asteraceae
Encelia farinosa Brittlebush Asteraceae
Erigeron karvinskianus Santa Barbara Daisy Asteraceae
Eriogonum fasciculatum var. poliofolium California Desert Buckwheat Polygalaceae
Eysenhardtia orthocarpa Sonoran Kidneywood Fabaceae
Fallugia paradoxa Apache Plume Rosaceae
Ferocactus cylindraceus California Barrel Cactus, Compass Barrel Cactaceae
Fouquieria splendens Ocotillo Fouquieraceae
Gaillardia sp. Blanket Flower Asteraceae
Gaura lindheimeri Whirling Butterflies Whirling Butterflies Gaura Onagraceae
Heterotheca villosa Hairy Golden Aster Asteraceae
Hyptis emoryi Desert Lavender Lamiaceae
Justicia californica Chuparosa Acanthaceae
Lantana camara Lantana Verbenaceae
Lantana x New Gold New Gold Lantana Verbenaceae
Leucaena greggii Gregg’s Leadtree Fabaceae
Leucaena retusa Goldenball Leadtree Fabaceae
Leucophyllum laevigatum Chihuahuan Rain Sage Scrophulariaceae
Leucophyllum langmaniae Rio Bravo Rio Bravo Texas Sage Scrophulariaceae
Leucophyllum pruinosum Sierra Bouquet Sierra Bouquet, Bubblegum Sage Scrophulariaceae
Leucophyllum zygophyllum Cimmarron Cimmarron Blue Texas Ranger Scrophulariaceae
Lippia sp. Oscar Clark Oscar Clark Verbena Verbenaceae
Monarda menthifolia Bee Balm, Wild Bergamot Lamiaceae
Monardella odoratissima Western Pennyroyal Lamiaceae
Monardella viminea Willowy Monardella Lamiaceae
Muhlenbergia dumosa Bamboo Muhly Poaceae
Penstemon cobaea Prairie Penstemon, Foxglove Penstemon Plantaginaceae
Penstemon parryi Parry’s Penstemon Plantaginaceae
Penstemon pseudospectabilis Desert Penstemon, Canyon Penstemon Plantaginaceae
Penstemon triflorus Hill Country Penstemon Plantaginaceae
Phyla nodiflora Frogfruit Verbenaceae
Prosopis pubescens Screwbean Mesquite Fabaceae
Prosopis sp. Mesquite Fabaceae
Salvia azurea var. grandiflora Blue Sage Lamiaceae
Salvia clevelandii Fragrant Sage, Cleveland Sage Lamiaceae
Salvia coccinea Tropical Sage Lamiaceae
Scutellaria suffrutescens Texas Rose Skullcap Lamiaceae
Senecio flaccidus var. monoensis Butter Weed Asteraceae
Senna covesii Coue’s Senna Fabaceae
Simmondsia chinensis Jojoba, Goatnut Simmondsiaceae
Sphaeralcea ambigua Desert Mallow Malvaceae
Tagetes lemmonii Mountain Marigold Asteraceae
Thymophylla acerosa Shrubby Dogweed Asteraceae
Thymophylla pentachaeta Golden Dogweed Asteraceae
Trixis californica Trixis Asteraceae
Vitex agnus-castus Chaste Tree Verbenaceae
Wedelia acapulcensis var. hispida Devil River Sunflower Asteraceae
Xylorhiza cognata Mecca Aster Asteraceae
Zinnia acerosa Desert Zinnia Asteraceae
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