When spring weather arrives, perennial flowers, even after an extremely dry winter, bloom throughout the natural areas of the Highlands. After the rain of our warm summers, the flower diversity explodes! Along with the flowers of these seasons come a fantastic variety of insect pollinators.
Of the insects, those most loved by humans are likely the butterflies. People adore butterflies, but bemoan the damage done in their yard by caterpillars. The reality is, we cannot have one without the other. With this in mind, we are sharing a bit more information about plants that are “hosts” for butterflies (that is, ones which are caterpillar food).
The metamorphosis of butterflies and moths is well known. Butterflies, with their nectar-sipping soda straw mouthparts, may look carefree as they dance from flower to flower, but they take their sex lives seriously. Males can be very territorial, and once females are ready to lay eggs, they may have to fly miles to find an appropriate plant.
Why the long search by the female for a specific plant? Because the food source for larvae is usually different from that of adults, and typically the “host” plant is very species specific. So what are “appropriate” plants? It depends on the species of butterfly. The following lists a few of our lovely local butterflies and their hosts:
Two-Tailed Swallowtail (Papilio multicaudata) – Chokecherry, Single-leaf Ash, Arizona Sycamore and others
Leda Ministreak (Phaeostrymon alcestis) – Velvet Mesquite
Arizona Hairstreak (Erora quaderna) – Fendler Ceanothus, Arizona White Oak
Grey Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) – Flowers and fruits from a wide variety of plants; most often from pea and mallow families including beans, clovers, and mallow.
Great Purple Hairstreak (Atlides halesus) – Mistletoe
Checkered White (Pontia protodice) – Mustards
Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) – Fern-bush, Choke Cherry, Rock Spirea
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) – This cosmopolitan butterfly has a wide variety of host plants: key in larval food is the Aster family including the thistles and Artemesias, Pearly Everlasting, and annual Sunflower. Other important families and plant groups are the Borages, the Mallows, the Pea Family (especially Lupines) and the Mustards, including radishes.
Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) – Common Buckeye also has a wide variety of hosts including the Plantains, Snapdragon family, Verbenas, and Ruellia.
Red Spotted Admiral (Limenitus artheis arizonensis) – Commonly called Red Spotted Purple as well; hosts are Willows Cottonwood, Quaking Aspen, and Chokecherry.
California Sister (Adelpha bredowii) – The oak family is key to our Sister butterflies: Gambel Oak, Scrub Oak, Arizona White Oak, & Emory Oak.
Red Satyr (Megisto rubricata) – The host plant for this butterfly has not been widely documented, it is likely to be native grasses.
Queen (Danaus gilippus) – Host to the Queen are plants in the Milkweed family. Like the Monarch and Soldier butterflies, the bright color of the Queen warns predators that they are poisonous. This quality comes from the milkweed plants’ sap that the larva ingests.
Weidemeyer’s Admiral (Limenitis weidemeyerii) – The larvae feed on Aspen and Cottonwood, willows, Ocean Spray (Holodiscus), and Shadbush (Amelanchier). In addition to nectar, adults feed on tree sap & carrion.
Once butterfly eggs hatch, the larvae are eating machines. Within a few weeks or months they may grow to thousands of times their original weight. Finally, once mature enough, they attach themselves to a stem or leaf and develop a case or chrysalis. Inside this structure the amazing transformation to an adult butterfly takes place. All the caterpillar’s body structure breaks down within this case, and a new one develops. Miraculously, an adult emerges.
When we pause and realize the tremendous variety of native species it takes to raise a diverse butterfly population, it becomes apparent that we, in our home landscapes, can do much to help the survival of butterflies. As human and climatic pressures affect their native habitats and food sources, we can garden for butterflies by including rich sources of nectar, and by remembering to plant natives and to keep the natural habitat intact for caterpillars – the next generation!