western swallowtail butterfly on flower stalk

Create a Southwest Butterfly Garden

My mantra always will be that xeric gardens do not get enough recognition for their flowering, color and attractiveness to people and pollinators. There is something about butterflies lighting on flowers that is simultaneously calming and exciting.

western swallowtail on desert zinnia

Anyone who thinks you can’t have these delightful moments in a desert Southwest garden is mistaken. There are plenty of native and xeric or low-water choices for Southwest gardeners.

Water and Food

Butterflies need nectar and liquids they get from other sources such as tree sap or rotting fruit. Offering a few puddle spots also helps butterflies get enough liquid and minerals. These often are made from shallow plates with rocks, sand or sponges for consistent but shallow moisture. This is a little trickier to maintain in the dry Southwest because water evaporates so quickly.

native-milkweed growing in dirt road
Native milkweed supports Monarchs. I’m sure this is native, since it was growing in the road on ranch land outside Tatum, N.M.

Host Plants

Having butterflies means feeding them while they are caterpillars. Most are picky eaters at this stage, feeding only off one or a few host plants. The Monarch butterfly, for instance only feeds off milkweed (Asclepsias), which is why people around the world are planting more milkweed or supporting growth of native milkweeds to help the Monarchs survive. There are plenty of other host plants for various butterflies. And it might be hard to step outside and find your dill plant decimated, but you’re happy to see a swallowtail caterpillar was the cause.

Dill decimated by swallowtail caterpillars. We counted at least 16 at once on a few dill plants.

I’ve listed many plants below that grow in the Southwest, grouped by type of plant and cooler or hotter zones common varieties grow in. This list includes just some of the many flowers, herbs and shrubs that attract adult butterflies or their larvae. You can always supplement perennial plants for your zone with a few annuals in containers or a bed to increase butterfly activity. Look for annuals with red, yellow, orange, pink or purple blossoms. Flowers with flat tops or growing in clusters are easier to land on, and if a flower is tubular, butterflies will go for ones with shorter tubes.

butterfly weed blossoms orange
Butterfly weed is drought tolerant, food for butterflies and has gorgeous orange blossoms. This one grew from seed near a rain barrel.

Some of the plants listed are perennial, some are annual in many zones, and some bloom at much different times throughout the Southwest. If you live in one of the hottest zones of the low desert, you might be able to grow a plant in an earlier or later time of year than most plant information suggests. That’s good though, since providing plants for butterflies and other pollinators throughout their active seasons helps attract them and support their habitat.


Herbs for Butterflies

small-butterfly on lavender stalk
Bees and butterflies love drought-tolerant, fragrant lavender.

Zones 5 through 9:

Lavender (Lavandula); dill (summer), fennel, Echinacea (coneflower), rosemary (Arp); yarrow (Achillea millefolium); bee balm; thyme; sage; mint.

Zones 10 and 11:

Lavender (some varieties, including Sunset’s Meerlo for zones 9 and 10); dill (winter); rosemary; sage; mint.

Bulbs and Flowers

western swallowtail butterfly on flower stalk
This Western Swallowtail loved our Bowle’s mauve a few years back.


Zones 5 through 9:

Coreopsis, foxglove (Digitalis); plumbago; phlox; milkweed (Asclepsias); butterfly weed (A. tuberosa); Allium (ornamental, garlic chives); sunflowers; marigolds; catmint (Nepeta); desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata); poppy (Papaver); penstemon varieties, especially natives; Bowles mauve wallflower (Erysium); salvias; Blanket flower (Gaillardia); Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta); lupine; verbena.

Zones 10 and 11:

Larkspur (some varieties); Saphhire showers (Duranta erecta); tall red pentas (Pentas lanceolata); Sunflowers; catmint (Nepeta x faassenii);┬áLantana; Salvias such as Mexican red sage; Penstemon varieties such as rock or Parry’s; Bowles mauve wallflower (Erysium); Sandpaper verbena.

Shrubs and Vines

monarch butterfly on butterfly bush
A Monarch on our butterfly bush this September.

Zones 5 through 9:

Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia); Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii); fourwing saltbush (Atriplex canescens); fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium); Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa); honeysuckle; black dalea (Dalea frutescens); currant; roses.

Zones 10 and 11:

Wooly butterfly bush (Buddleia marrubiifolia); Bottlebrush (Callistemon); Fourwing saltbush (Atriplex canescens); black dalea (Dalea frutescens); Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa); Passion vine (Passiflora) bougainvillea; roses.

Butterfly on cosmos bloom
Butterfly on cosmos blossom in our wildflower bed.

In addition, many native trees support butterflies, along with citrus trees, vitex, willow, hackberry, madrone, poplar and pine trees. Again, this is not a complete list by any means. Check with your local nursery, master gardeners or native plant society for more information on growing times and heat hardiness of plants to attract butterflies.

And we welcome you to start a discussion here in our comments or on our Facebook page to share ideas with other Southwest gardeners for butterfly gardens.


Teresa Odle, Southwest Gardening contributor


Teresa Odle is the author of a blog on low-water gardening in the Southwest. And, because you can grow beautiful flowers inside no matter the climate, she is the editor of African Violet Magazine. Teresa trained as a Master Gardener in Albuquerque, N.M. Today, she and her husband attempt to manage four acres of land in zone 6B of southeastern New Mexico that border the Rio Ruidoso in the Sacramento Mountains. Teresa’s blog, Gardening in a Drought, won a 2016 national award for best writing in digital media from the Association for Garden Communicators. She has been a writer and editor for 20 years.

Connect with Teresa on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook.

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  • JhonM. Gunther

    I’ve just discovered your page. As a new transplant to the desert; I am excited to discover new ways of gardening in the heat and the discovery of new plants.