Butterfly on eupatorium

The eupatorium flower, seen here at Tohono Chul Park, is known for its butterfly-attracting properties.

Brandon Hays/The Explorer

In August of last year, I wrote about landscaping your yard with butterfly plants. A reader then asked me to name my five favorite butterfly plants.  I responded, “That is like asking me to choose a favorite child! Each child is loved for who they are as unique individuals.”

To add to this, when it comes to plants, what thrives in my garden may not do well for you, and the colors I enjoy may not be your favorites.

Plants are, to me, a highly personal choice. That said, here are three genera that offer a number of attractive butterfly plants.


For exquisite fragrance in your yard, you can’t beat the milkweeds.  Asclepias is the genus that offers us two sturdy, desert-dwelling milkweeds. Technically, these two are perennial plants since they are not woody like shrubs, although they could be used in the landscape as either low shrubs or blooming plants. 

Asclepias linaria, the pine-leaf milkweed, and Asclepias subulata, the desert milkweed, are the two milkweeds to choose from. Pine-leaf milkweed does best if it gets light shade in the summer, so site this one in an east-facing yard or under a palo verde tree, where it will get filtered light.

The desert milkweed is like a bundle of chartreuse green sticks that flare out like a vase, and then they bloom. The plant will have clouds of butterflies, especially if you do a mass planting of them so there is ample nectar available.  

Fairy Dusters/Calliandra

Fairy dusters are delightful. There are two species of these desert shrubs that grow well in our area. Calliandra californica, the Baja fairy duster, has lovely red puffs for blooms, while its shorter cousin, Calliandra eriophylla, the desert fairy duster, offers pink blooms. 

The desert fairy duster is a spring bloomer and grows to 2 feet by 2 feet.  The Baja fairy duster may bloom year-round if you provide extra water and don’t let it freeze. Depending on the seed stock, these plants may reach 5 feet by 5 feet.


The Dalea genus offers a number of marvelous species that grow well in our area. The species mentioned here can take full sun and, once established, some drought, although all will look much better and bloom more prolifically with additional water. 

Daleas are in the Legume family, and this means that you should never fertilize them, a nice bonus. Another bonus is that unlike many other members of the Legume family, Dalea seed pods are fragile and small, and do not pose a litter problem for homeowners.

First, two groundcovers. Dalea capitata, the golden dalea, forms a low, creeping ground cover with yellow blooms and brighter green foliage than its cousin Dalea greggii, the trailing indigo bush with mounding silvery foliage and lavender blooms.

Then there are a number of shrubby daleas. Dalea fructescens, the black dalea, has lovely, rosy-purple blooms in fall and winter. It grows to 3 feet by 4 feet. Dalea lutea, the yellow-flowered dalea, is a slightly shorter shrub, reaching around 3 feet by 3 feet in size. 

Dalea pulchra – the indigo bush or bush dalea – is a dense, rugged shrub spreading to 3 feet by 5 feet with tufts of purple blooms. Dalea wislizenii is new to the trade and lacks a common name. This dalea has a more light and airy form with bright green foliage and rose-purple blooms. Reaching 4 feet by 4 feet, this shrub does well with some filtered shade.

Another new dalea in the nursery trade is “Mountain Delight” dalea (Dalea versicolor var. sessilis cv. “Mountain Delight”), a nice screening shrub that reaches 4 feet by 4 feet and has pretty purple blooms.

All of these lovely butterfly plants can be planted right now through mid-October, so I do hope you will consider visiting one of our wonderful local nurseries to pick out some for your yard.

Jacqueline A. Soule, Ph.D., has been writing about gardening in the Southwest for close to three decades. Her latest book, “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today” ($14.95), is available at area nurseries. Email kinoherbbook@hotmail.com for more information.

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