These vibrant flowers and plants provide nectar for butterflies and create a bold border for your yard.
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia)
Butterfly bushes (Buddleia or Buddleja) are large, fast-growing shrubs whose flowers are irresistible to butterflies. Buddleias are easy-care plants, but they’re invasive in some areas. Look for sterile cultivars which don’t set seed and therefore don’t run wild.
These fast-growing deciduous shrubs are suitable for planting in perennial borders, cottage gardens, island beds or wherever their loose, somewhat messy growth habit won’t detract from a particular garden design you’re trying to achieve. The plants tend to sprawl as they grow up to 12 feet tall, although you can opt for dwarf types with a neater, more compact growth habit if you’re going for a groomed look.
Phlox is a low-growing, spreading plant that forms a blanket of blooms all summer. Perennial varieties are great for a year-round groundcover.
Most garden phlox will grow in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8. For best results, do a soil test before planting, to see what amendments, if any, you may need (soil test kits are available from garden centers, or your local county extension service may be able to test a soil sample for you.).
Coneflower is one of the best flowers for attracting butterflies. It adds a flashy touch of color to the late summer landscape. Plant echinacea among a low growing perennial bed where showy flowers will stand above the rest.
The plants are consistently winter hardy throughout the country, standing up to harsh Minnesota winters, as well as mild Florida ones. Echinacea plants are drought-tolerant once established, making them well-suited to today’s water-conscious plantings. They make a great choice for rain gardens, adapting easily to the wet-dry soil cycles that typify these plantings.
Lantana produces profuse color, showing off clusters of tiny, eye-catching blooms in a variety of hues. Typically grown as an annual, it’s an excellent low hedge or accent shrub that you can also train as a standard. It attracts butterflies and tolerates heat.
Lantana care is pretty simple. Water newly planted lantana regularly to ensure healthy root development. While established plants are drought tolerant, they stage the best show when they receive roughly one inch of water per week, either through rainfall or irrigation.
Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii)
Blue star is a perennial that can reach two to three feet in height. It gets its name after its blue, star-shaped blooms that open up in spring.
Use in masses or as a specimen plant, or in a mixed perennial border in the middle to back of the border or in a rock garden. Blue star performs best in partial shade in a moist, loamy, well-drained soil, and also tolerates full sun if provided with enough moisture.
Pot marigolds’ blooms last up to eight weeks in the summer and are a quick-to-grow plant.
Black-eyed Susan is one of the great wildflowers of North America and was one of the first to become a domesticated garden flower. Its showy golden yellow flower head with black centers are a visual delight.
Blazing Star Flowers (Liatris spicata)
The blazing star is an interesting perennial which produces 1 to 3 foot-tall spikes of bright purplish-pink or white flowers in late June to early fall. It is an ideal plant to grow in a butterfly garden.
Heliotrope has a sweet, pungent scent that some liken to the smell of cherry pie. ‘Dwarf Marine’ features a royal purple color. It is large flowered yet compact and has attractive, dark green foliage and a bushy habit.
Lavender is a perennial favorite for gardeners and butterflies alike, producing tall, fragrant spikes of purple blooms. Hailing from the Mediterranean, it’s drought-resistant and can take the heat.
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
A type of milkweed, drought-tolerant butterfly weed isn’t picky about growing conditions. Give it a sunny spot, and you’ll be on your way to a flowery summer. Butterflies, bees and other pollinators can’t resist these bright orange blooms. This perennial pushes through soil in late spring, well after other plants are up and at ‘em. It’s a good idea to mark clumps with a stake to avoid early season digging in that spot. Hardy in Zones 3 to 9.
Flossflower is an annual that is a member of the aster family. The plants grow easily from seed and with enough water and a little shade, will bloom from midsummer to frost.
Chocolate Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus)
This delightful cosmos boasts dark maroon flowers that—as you might guess—are chocolate-scented.
Agapanthus comes to life in late summer. It features large, elegant, deep blue bell-shaped blooms that are clustered together on tall, sturdy stems. These showy flower heads stand well above the plant’s foliage.
Aster is an herbaceous perennial that comes in a wide variety of colors. Its daisy-like flowers bloom in late summer and autumn in a sunny site.
Sea Holly (Eryngium tripartitum)
Sea holly has blue green stems with masses of small, metallic blue flower heads on tall, 4-foot stems. Sea holly is a delight to butterflies a tough plant that is very tolerant of drought.
Sedum has thick, succulent leaves that withstand drought and rainy weather. The flower buds form early and remain attractive well into winter. Low-growing types are perfect for rock gardens, while taller varieties thrive in perennial borders.
Goldenrod is a perennial with bright yellow flowers that add color to a late summer garden.
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
This stunning American wildflower loves moist, shady woodland areas and attracts butterflies and hummingbirds for miles around
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are vividly colored and fascinating to watch. Their presence greatly enhances the natural environment of a garden. Unfortunately monarch butterfly numbers have been declining over the years. One reason is habitat destruction. Another factor is the use of pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals can kill the butterflies and their host and nectar plants. By avoiding the use of pesticides and herbicides as well as providing milkweed plants to host the butterflies and nectar plants to feed them, we can do our part in aiding their survival.
- Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are vividly colored and fascinating to watch.
- These chemicals can kill the butterflies and their host and nectar plants.
Host Flowers for Monarch Butterflies
Monarch butterflies have one particular species of flower on which they lay their eggs and feed their offspring: milkweed. Milkweed plants are members of the Asclepiadaceae family and are the host plant of monarchs. The plant and the monarch butterfly have a symbiotic relationship. The milkweed is the single plant on which the monarch lays its eggs. Larvae then emerge from these eggs and eat only the milkweed. The toxin from the milkweed accumulates in the body of the growing butterfly, making it lethal to many of its predators. In turn, however, the butterfly carries pollen from one milkweed to the next as it feeds on the nectar, assisting the plant in its reproduction. One popular milkweed plant favored by monarchs is the scarlet milkweed (Asclepias curassavica)–sometimes referred to as the bloodflower. Monarchs also enjoy the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and butterfly flower (Asclepias tuberosa).
- Monarch butterflies have one particular species of flower on which they lay their eggs and feed their offspring: milkweed.
- One popular milkweed plant favored by monarchs is the scarlet milkweed (Asclepias curassavica)–sometimes referred to as the bloodflower.
Perennial Nectar Flowers for Monarch Butterflies
Bee balm (Monarda), an attractive plant to the monarch, is usually grown in herb and cottage gardens. Another favorite is the scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma). Two other bee balms suitable for providing butterfly nectar are wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata). The purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a popular choice for both monarchs and gardeners, and so is the black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia). A spiky purple perennial called gayfeather (Liatris spicata) will attract many species of butterfly, including the monarch. The spring flowering primrose (Primula) is a good choice for an early nectar plant, while yarrow (Achillea millefolium) blooms throughout the summer. Keep in mind that some important nectar producing perennials are considered weeds, like aster, thistle, goldenrod and dandelion, and are routinely mowed or sprayed. Knowing how important nectar flowers are to the monarch’s survival, gardeners might try to view these roadside plants a bit more favorably.
- Bee balm (Monarda), an attractive plant to the monarch, is usually grown in herb and cottage gardens.
- The spring flowering primrose (Primula) is a good choice for an early nectar plant, while yarrow (Achillea millefolium) blooms throughout the summer.
Annual Nectar Flowers for Monarch Butterflies
The marigold is a common summer bedding flower that not only provides nectar for monarchs, but also repels undesirable insects from the garden. Butterflies favor zinnias, which are also good cutting flowers. Zinnias can be planted in prepared soil, such as that of a vegetable garden. Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is a fragrant flowering groundcover. The tiny white, pink or purple blooms exude a sweet fragrance all summer long. Though alyssum is an annual, it will often return from seed. One of the easiest butterfly annuals to grow is cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus). These tall, bright flowers will bloom throughout the summer.
Butterfly gardens are a popular feature in the home garden landscape. In fact, creating Monarch butterfly waystations has become the major goal of preservationists across the United States Flowering plants and shrubs like butterfly bush, butterfly weed, and the pincushion flower ‘Butterfly Blue’ can attract these winged beauties to your garden, but learning about the life cycles and feeding habits of butterflies can increase your garden’s allure considerably.
Plant Butterfly Friendly Flowers
Traditional flowers that you see in butterfly gardens include brightly colored plants with shallow blossoms that allow easy nectar access. Popular butterfly perennials include milkweed, coneflowers, hyssop, asters, and liatris. Flowering shrubs add structure to the landscape while nourishing butterflies, so include some viburnum, sweetspire, and elderberry. These plants and shrubs all thrive in full sun, which butterflies need to maintain their metabolism.
Use a mix of annuals and perennials to prolong blooming time. Flowering containers allow you to exchange plantings during low-blooming lulls in the garden, like late spring and late summer. Use a combination of window boxes, patio containers, and hanging baskets to help create staggered blooming heights in the butterfly garden. Stick to nectar-rich flowers like pentas, cosmos, lantana, petunias, and zinnias instead of sterile hybrid flowers to ensure a steady supply of nectar.
In addition to a variety of colors, include plants of differing heights to attract more butterflies. A short row of flowering bedding plants may look attractive to homeowners, but it doesn’t satisfy the needs of some butterflies. In nature, butterflies fill specific feeding niches by focusing on flowers at certain heights. By including flowers that grow at a range of heights, you can achieve a professional-looking border, and you will attract a greater variety of butterflies. For example, Tiger Swallowtails seek tall flowers like Joe Pye weed and honeysuckle vines. The Least Skipper and Little Yellow butterflies prefer flowers closer to the ground, like lavender, dianthus, and asters.
Plant nectar flowers in groups instead of singly. Butterflies prefer to move from bloom to bloom of the same type of flower rather than fly from one nectar plant in search of another that may be growing some distance away.
Add Plants for Butterfly Caterpillars
Serious butterfly gardeners plant both nectar and host plants. Host plants are those on which the female butterfly will lay her eggs and for many butterflies that choice is very specific. The host plant must provide food for the growing caterpillars. Some butterflies seek out plants in a particular family, and others will lay eggs on one plant and one plant only. If you intermingle attractive host plants with nectar rich plants in your flower garden, you may find yourself fostering one butterfly generation after the next. Damage to host plants is minimal since butterfly caterpillar feeding rarely causes death or stunted growth on healthy plants.
Aster flowers are an important source of nectar for migrating butterflies in the fall, but before that, the larvae of the Pearl Crescent butterfly feed on its foliage . Monarchs depend on butterfly weed and other plants in the milkweed family to provide them with the toxins that make them unpalatable to birds and other predators. The showy Zebra Longwing butterfly, a Florida and Texas resident, feeds its babies exclusively on the foliage of the passionflower. If you reside in the Eastern half of the United States, you may attract the iridescent Eastern tailed-blue to your garden with a host planting of sweet peas.
Include Butterfly Shelter Areas
Butterflies need shelter from wind and rain but will seek out natural areas such as dense shrubbery or stacked wood. Butterfly houses that look like wooden blocks with tall, narrow slots can serve as a colorful piece of yard art in your butterfly garden. They are more likely, though, to attract a paper wasp colony, and will be the butterflies’ last choice for a place to hibernate or rest.
Offer Alternative Butterfly Foods
It can become a challenge to keep all your nectar and host plants going all season long and many butterflies are attracted to alternate food sources. Placing overripe fruit like peaches, pears and bananas in a shallow dish will help to continue the feeding cycle for adult butterflies when nectar plants move past bloom.
Fermented beer or molasses can act as the condiment on the fruit main dish, proving irresistible to species like the Question Mark and Red-Spotted Purple. Replace the fruit frequently to discourage wasps and ants from taking over the buffet. You can also cover the fruit with a window screen, to block wasps and bees. With their long proboscis, butterflies will still be able to feed. .
Provide Butterfly Puddling Stations
Butterflies seek shallow puddles in the garden not only as a source of drinking water, but also as a way to obtain vital minerals. In fact, the Cloudless Sulphur and the Sleepy Orange butterfly may congregate en masse in muddy areas or bog gardens. Look for this puddling behavior in the hottest part of the day, and keep your soil free of chemicals that can harm sensitive butterflies. A shallow dish filled with pebbles or sand and water can act as a valuable drinking station on hot days.
Avoid Pesticides That Harm Butterflies
When it comes to pest control, butterfly gardeners must tread lightly. Most pesticides will harm or kill butterflies (as well as other beneficial pollinators like bees and parasitic wasps). Even organic pest control options like insecticidal soap or neem oil can kill butterflies or disrupt their feeding and mating habits. However, this doesn’t mean you have to hand your flowers over to the aphids. Only use pesticides to treat insect outbreaks, not as a preventative treatment. Finally, try non-pesticide insect controls, like floating row covers, jets of water to blast away small insects, and hand-picking large insects like beetles.
A Fun and Worthwhile Garden Project
Designing and planting a butterfly garden is a fun project for the entire family. Children often enjoy helping out with gardening tasks especially when the reward is a visit from lots of beautifully patterned butterflies.
Most butterflies only live a week. Make those few precious days count — plant a butterfly garden!
All gardens are not created equal. Just ask any butterfly.
Creating and restoring butterfly habitat offsets what development, roadside mowing or wetland drainage have destroyed. (Gardening pesticide-free helps, too.)
Whether you have a small plot in the big city or a few acres, transform your yard into a butterfly garden!
Many butterfly species don’t migrate. You can provide habitat and food for their entire life cycle — eggs, larvae, pupae AND adults — throughout the year.
Think beyond providing flowers for nectar in the height of summer.
What you’ll need
Adults need a place to lay eggs where their caterpillars will forage. (Plant species that will get eaten and not just look pretty!)
Some butterflies rarely visit flowers. They prefer mud, poop (a.k.a. “scat” or “dung”), sap and rotting fruit.
Consider not raking leaves to provide a butterfly nursery! Most butterflies in Canada overwinter as caterpillars, others as pupae. A few species winter as adults, hibernating in hollow trees, under bark and firewood piles, or in garden shed cracks and crevices. Few spend winter as eggs.
Blooms from spring through fall
Don’t limit your garden to an end of July color extravaganza. You’ll need a diversity of native nectar plants to flower over a few months.
Make sure you (or your neighbours) have sunny spots.
Most butterflies will feed from more than a few plant species.
Think about the role of your yard
Is it a habitat source (high-quality patch that supports population increases)? Or is it more of an island?
Some yards can provide for one butterfly species’ entire life cycle. Some are disconnected from other habitat patches.
Walk around the block and view your neighbourhood through a butterfly’s eyes. Chat with your neighbours and see what they’re planting. Note possible connecting corridors between butterfly-friendly patches. Can schoolyards, boulevards and local green spaces help support butterflies?
The Butterflyway Project
The Butterflyway Project is a citizen-led movement growing highways of habitat for bees and butterflies across Canada, one butterfly-friendly planting at a time.
Volunteer Butterflyway Rangers have connected with local schools, city agencies and homeowners to plant thousands of wildflowers in hundreds of pollinator patches, establishing Butterflyways in nine neighbourhoods and cities!
Learn how to add a butterfly garden to your yard and make it a destination for these beauties.
Black Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio polyxenes)
Close-Up Of Black Swallowtail Butterfly On Purple Flowers
Photo by: Getty Images/Vinod Kumar
Getty Images/Vinod Kumar
Watching butterflies bask in the sun or flit from flower to flower has to be one of the great pleasures of gardening. Here’s how to create a butterfly garden that gives these gorgeous creatures a good place to hang out:
- butterfly-attracting flowers
- large, flat rocks
- water source
- one or more trees or shrubs
Step 1: Select Site for Butterfly Garden
A variety of broad-leafed trees and shrubs will provide cover from wind, rain and predators. Locate your butterfly garden in a sunny site; if you can’t find a protected spot, plant a windbreak of mid-sized cultivars of dense conifers like spruce, juniper or cypress.
Step 2: Remember the Rocks
Invite butterflies to sunbathe. As cold-blooded insects, butterflies like to warm themselves in the sun. Create a few perches out of the wind; chances are you’ll also see them resting on a sunny rock or on top of a fence post.
Step 3: Provide Water
Put a mixture of sand and soil in a plant saucer or a shallow bowl and add enough water to saturate the mixture thoroughly, but not so much that there’s standing water. Butterflies like to rest on wet sand or soil and absorb moisture and minerals from it. If the "drinking station" dries out too fast in your climate, sink a bucket filled with a wet mixture of soil and sand into the ground.
Step 4: Add the Plants
Choose a wide range of flowering plants that differ in color, type of flower and bloom time to welcome multiple species and give them plenty of options. Butterflies feed on tubular flowers and they especially love those with "landing strips." Yarrow, stonecrop, coneflower, verbena, phlox, butterfly bush , butterfly weed (Asclepias), bee balm, cardinal flower (Lobelia), coreopsis, black-eyed Susan, Joe Pye weed, pentas, and various asters and sedums can keep your garden in butterfly blooms throughout the season.
What to Grow
How to Start a Butterfly Garden
Butterfly Garden in Connecticut
Beginning a butterfly garden can be as simple as choosing flowering plants that will invite adult butterflies to your garden to feed. But if you want to create a butterfly garden that will act as a sanctuary, attracting a wide variety of butterflies while also providing a place where butterflies can grow and multiply, you will first need some simple planning. By considering which plants to grow and evaluating your garden site, you can plant a butterfly garden that will help with the creation of more butterflies.
Many flowering plants will attract butterflies to your location, but not all flowers are created equally in the compound eyes of a butterfly. Selecting plants that will feed butterflies while also encouraging them to stick around for a while, laying eggs and creating a new generation of butterflies, is your goal. To do this, you will need to choose plants that fall into two groups: nectar plants that will provide adult butterflies with energy and caterpillar food plants that will feed caterpillars. With careful selection from these two groups, your garden will provide for the entire life cycle of butterflies.
Choosing Nectar Plants
Eastern Purple Coneflower
While shopping for garden plants, you will encounter many plants labeled “butterfly friendly.” These labels are most likely telling the truth and if you choose plants labeled for butterfly gardens, they will attract butterflies. Most likely, though, these plants are nectar plants, marketed for their bright blooms, and will not provide for the caterpillar stage of a butterfly’s life. Although many flowering plants provide nectar to butterflies, it is worth doing a little research to find you what plants attract the most butterflies in your area. Just as growing conditions vary by location, so do the popularity of butterfly nectar plants. Some plants will serve as both nectar and caterpillar food plants and it may be worth searching out some of these double duty offerings.
Choosing Caterpillar Food Plants
The relationship between butterflies, caterpillars and the plants they use for food is not a casual one. It is a relationship created over thousands of years as flowering plants developed along side insects. As a result of this long development, caterpillars will use only certain plants for food. At the same time, butterflies are equally picky about what plants they will select to lay their eggs on. In order to encourage caterpillars in the garden, butterfly gardeners need only select the plants that are preferred by caterpillars in their location. Nature and chemistry will take care of the rest.
Choosing Plants for Butterflies Common to Your Region
To determine which butterflies and caterpillars may arrive in your garden, visit local butterfly gardens in your region or talk to other butterfly gardeners. If such opportunities do not exist, many butterfly field guides also provide information about which butterflies are likely to visit gardens and what food sources they prefer. Once you have identified butterflies that are most likely to visit your garden, select their preferred caterpillar food plants along with nectar plants that are recommended for your growing area.
Garden Site Selection
New Jersey Butterfly Garden
Planting a wide range of nectar and host plants is the best strategy for attracting the largest number of butterfly species. Butterflies may be attracted to the garden by a large patch of bright flowers, but they will linger longer if there are also areas that provide shelter, water, sun and a diverse group of plants that imitate the way plants grow in the wild.
in the garden results from choosing plants of different types, such as shrubs, trees, perennials, and even vines. In choosing plants that grow to different heights, with a variety of flower shapes and colors that have different bloom times, you will be creating a garden that is attractive to a wide range of butterflies. Grouping more than one plant of each type together will help to unify the look of the garden and will lessen the distance that nectaring butterflies have to travel. If your garden is small and has no room for trees or shrubs, consider an arbor covered with vines to create height. There are many vines to choose from that act as nectar or caterpillar food plants.
While shrubs and trees can create unnecessary shade, they do provide an important feature in the butterfly garden. Properly placed, trees and shrubs will shelter your garden from wind, which makes it easier for butterflies to explore your location. Additionally, trees and shrubs give valuable shelter where butterflies can roost at night or hide from predators. Keep in mind that many shrubs and trees are also caterpillar food plants!
is needed by butterflies, but not very much. Nectar, dew, and tree sap provide butterflies with moisture but puddles and moist dirt or sand are also popular water sources. Puddling stations can be as simple as a damp area of ground covered with sand. Placed where they are easily viewed and sheltered from the wind, puddling stations are thought to provide dissolved salts in addition to water.
is essential for the butterfly garden. Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that often start their day by warming their bodies in the sun. Be sure to include a spot in the garden where sunlight will reach the ground early in the day. Large rocks, exposed soil, or even pavement are all surfaces that will warm up in morning sunlight. Try to locate your garden where it will receive at least six hours of direct sunlight each day.
Once you have combined careful plant selection with the details of site selection, you will have created a butterfly garden that is a microhabitat providing a unique location where a wide variety of butterflies can live and grow.
Would the world be an uglier place without butterflies? Oh my goodness, yes, just look at them, they’re beautiful! But beyond just ugly, a world without butterflies and other pollinators would be far less hospitable to life.
Insects that feed on nectar, like butterflies, play an essential role in the lifecycles of many of the plants that humans and other animals depend on for food. Without them, those plants would be in trouble, and so would we.
That’s why the Student Conservation Association works to protect pollinators from the many threats that are causing their populations to drop, including habitat loss.
Looking for a way to help? You’re in the right place. Sign up now to receive conservation email updates from SCA, and you’ll receive instant access to our free guide to butterfly gardening.
By building a simple butterfly garden, you’ll help preserve the essential habitat that butterflies and other pollinators need to survive and, bonus, bring more butterflies to your yard! It’s a fun and easy way to truly make a difference for the planet while enjoying some time in the great outdoors.
Create Your Own Butterfly Garden!
Picking the Perfect Location
When determining a location for your butterfly garden, sunlight is the key. Most native plants that attract butterflies will require full sun for at least half of the day. When considering a location, you also want to look at the quality of the soil. If your soil is acidic, rocky, or mostly clay, you may want to consider adding compost or buying nutrient rich topsoil.
Choosing the Right Plants
Choosing the right plants requires a bit of research as it’s very important to use plants that grow naturally in your region. Not only are native butterflies more likely to be attracted to a garden filled with the native plants they are familiar with, but in some cases non-native plants can actually be harmful to butterflies and other pollinators. A fun way to begin is by scouting around your neighborhood to see what plants and butterflies are already there. Once you have some ideas, complete your research by downloading a list of pollinator-friendly native plants in your region, and head to a nursery that’s knowledgeable about local plants and wildflowers.
Two types of plants that butterflies need are host plants and nectar plants. Host plants, where butterflies lay their eggs, are vital to the butterfly lifecycle and will encourage butterflies to linger and explore. Common examples of host plants are milkweed (make sure it’s native and not tropical!) for monarch butterflies and their caterpillars, and parsley, for black swallowtails and their caterpillars.
Nectar plants are the flowers that adult butterflies feed on. Common native wildflowers like Aster, Echinacea, and Black-eyed Susan are a great source of nectar for butterflies. Be sure to pick a few flowers that bloom throughout the spring and summer to provide nectar throughout the season. Plant nursery staff are generally an excellent source of knowledge on the blooming cycles of local wildflowers. One thing to be sure and avoid is the butterfly bush! While this plant is famous for attracting butterflies, it lacks nutritional value and is actually addictive, preventing butterflies from feeding on healthy plants.
When you plant your flowers, be sure to clump them by species and color. This makes the colors easier to see and butterflies will be more likely to utilize them. Primarily, butterflies are attracted to red, orange, yellow, and purple flowers.
Butterflies Need More Than Plants!
Providing a few flat rocks for sunning and some cool, shady spots for resting will help butterflies regulate their temperature. If an area is particularly windy, you can use larger shrubs as a windbreak. While not completely necessary to include, some butterfly gardens have bird baths or other water features that allow butterflies to “puddle” and obtain hydration and mineral nutrients. Birdbaths and benches also provide a sturdy, sheltered place for caterpillars to pupate.
Thankfully, native plants do not require much maintenance, but you can weed, trim, and water as you see necessary. Do NOT use pesticides or insecticides in your garden! Doing so will kill the butterflies you’ve worked so hard to attract. If you include many species of native plant in your garden, you will see fewer pests and, bonus, more butterflies. Don’t worry about lightly-chewed leaves, as they’re usually a sign of an active, healthy butterfly garden.
Butterfly gardening involves planning your garden to attract, retain and encourage butterfly populations. Flowers of similar colors grouped together are more attractive to both butterflies and the gardener.
Choosing host plants
Select a variety of nectar-producing plants with the aim of providing flowers in bloom throughout the season. This will entice a continuous succession of new visitors to a yard. It is especially important to have flowers in mid to late summer, when most butterflies are active.
- Flowers with multiple florets that produce abundant nectar are ideal.
- Annuals are wonderful butterfly plants because they bloom continuously through the season, providing a steady supply of nectar.
- Butterflies regularly visit perennial plants, such as coneflowers, lilac, butterfly weed and asters.
- Most plants in the mint family are good nectar sources for butterflies.
- Avoid double flowers because they are often bred for showiness, not nectar production.
- Plantings of host plants preferred by butterflies do not require any sacrifice of flowers and colors.
- Plants such as yellow sunflower, pink Joe-Pye weed, purple coneflower and purple verbena, yellow Black-eyed Susan, red bee balm/bergamot and purple wild asters provide plentiful color.
For successful butterfly gardening, you need to provide food for more than the adult butterflies. You need to provide for their caterpillar forms as well.
Common butterflies and their caterpillar food plants
Butterfly caterpillars have a limited host range. Most caterpillars feed on leaves. Some develop on the reproductive parts of flowers or seeds.
Some supposedly good butterfly plants might not attract butterflies in your garden. It may be that a particular plant is not the preferred larval food of local butterflies.
Common butterflies and their caterpillar food plants
Butterfly species Caterpillar food plant Swallowtail Family (Papilionidae) Black swallowtail Parsley family – both wild and cultivated: carrot, dill, parsley, parsnip Spicebush swallowtail Spicebush, sassafras Tiger swallowtail Aspen, cherry, birch Snout butterfly (Libytheidae) Common snout butterfly Hackberry Brush-footed family (Nymphalidae) Great spangled and idalia fritillary Violets Buckeye Plantains, gerardias, toadflax, snapdragons, false loosestrifes Painted lady Thistles Red admiral Nettles, false nettle Viceroy and red-spotted purple Willows, especially black willow, pussy willow, poplars, plums, cherries Hackberry butterfly Hackberry Monarch butterfly Milkweeds, butterfly weed Mourning cloak Willow, birch, aspen, maple, elm Sulphur family (Pieridae) Common (clouded) sulphur Clover, alfalfa Dogface butterfly Lead plant, false indigo, prairie clover Coppers, blues, harvesters, metalmarks families (Lycaenidae, Riodinidae) American copper Sorrel Sylvan hairstreak Willow Common hairstreak Mallow family, rose & marsh mallows, hollyhock Gray hairstreak Hawthorn Skipper family (Hesperidae) Blazing star skipper Grasses
Nectar plants for adult butterflies
Azalea, blueberries, butterfly bush, buttonbush, lilac, privets and sumacs
Cultivated flowers: annuals
Coneflowers, flowering tobacco, impatiens, marigolds, phlox, sunflower and verbena
Cultivated flowers: perennials
Asters, bee balm, butterfly weed, chrysanthemums, daisies, live forever, purple coneflower, sedum and yarrow
New England aster, bergamots or horsemints, black-eyed Susan, blazing stars, boneset, butterfly flower, coreopsis, ox-eye daisy and purple agertum
Some weedy wildflowers are not appropriate for formal garden settings, but could be used in a wild patch: common milkweeds, dogbane, goldenrods, ironweeds, Joe-Pye weed, nettles and thistles.
Some butterflies, such as the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalidae: Nymphalis antiopa) and Hackberry (Apaturidae: Asterocampa celtis) feed on rotting fruit, sap that oozes from trees, and even dung.
Sample garden plan
1. Purple coneflower
5. Globe centaurea
8. Swamp milkweed
10. Queen Anne’s lace
11. Tawny daylily
12. ‘Marine’ heliotrope
14. Butterfly weed
16. Mountain bluet
17. Annual aster
18. ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum
21. ‘Happy Returns’ daylily
22. Blanket flower
Reduced use of pesticides
One of the most important conservation decisions we can make is to avoid the use of broad spectrum pesticides sprayed all around the yard. Instead, use less harmful spot treatments on plants troubled with pest insects.
For pest insects, use alternative control methods such as oils, soaps and microbial insecticides such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Remember that oils and soaps still kill caterpillars if sprayed directly on them. They also will die if they feed on plants treated with a Bt formulation that is toxic to them.
Most butterfly species, such as the Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), lay only a few eggs at a time. This low level of insect population will not kill shrubs or trees. Black Swallowtail (Papilionidae: Papilio polyxenes) larvae, however, can completely consume herbaceous plants such as dill. To avoid killing a beautiful guest, you should be sure of your identification of an insect as a pest before using any pesticide.
A good side effect of the decrease in pesticide use is the increase of natural enemies. Insects such as spiders, lacewings, ladybird beetles and ground beetles, help to control unwanted pests.
Caution: Mention of a pesticide or use of a pesticide label is for educational purposes only. Always follow the pesticide label directions attached to the pesticide container you are using. Remember, the label is the law.
Enjoy your garden
With a pair of binoculars and a butterfly field guide, your garden is sure to bring you many rewarding hours of butterfly watching. Their daily activities are interesting to watch. Keep a written or photographic record of these special visitors to your garden. Creating your personal Eden is within your grasp.