Butterfly Gardening

Follow these easy tips to turn your backyard into a Lepidoptera's paradise.

January 11, 2016

It's easy to fill your garden with a fluttering rainbow. Nearly every locale across the country offers some butterflies that you can attract into your garden by meeting just a few of the beautiful insects' basic needs. and you can always plant Flowers That Promise To Bring Monarch Butterflies To Your Yard.

Every butterfly passes through four distinct life stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and adult. Of course, you can't attract a chrysalis or egg, but you can entice the adults who start the cycle. Adding flowers like zinnias, cosmos, coneflowers, daisies, and other butterfly favorites to your garden is an easy way to attract these nectar seekers.


But in some species, the adult butterfly doesn't eat anything at all. Its only function is to reproduce, mating and laying eggs for the next generation. You can still attract these butterflies—as well as those that drink nectar—by supplying suitable food plants for their caterpillars to munch. In most species, when the female is ready to lay her eggs, she seeks out the host plant species that her caterpillars will need for food.

A caterpillar is an eating machine, but many species will eat only a few types of plants. The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly, for example, eats only milkweeds (Asclepias spp.); black swallowtail caterpillars may favor your parsley. And as any gardener who's fought off cabbage-worms can tell you, the common white cabbage butterflies prefer brassicas (cabbage-family crops) for their host plants. 

Supplying food for nectar-seeking adults and host plants for egg laying are the best ways to attract butterflies into your garden. Use low-growing groundcovers such as clovers and grasses to provide sunning spots for adults to warm themselves. Walls, hedgerows, and similar windbreaks create protected spots that butterflies will appreciate.

Adding a source of water is as essential for attracting butterflies as it is for birds. Creating a "mudhole"—a shallow, permanent puddle—offers butterflies both water and minerals from the mud. Or make a butterfly "bath" from the basin of a birdbath (without the stand) or a plate or shallow bowl placed directly on the ground. Fill it with pebbles to give the butterflies good perching spots, then add water. Butterflies will come flocking!

Planning Your Garden
If you want to add the living color of butterflies to your garden, start by using some of the recommended plants in the lists at the end of this article. Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) make an unusual addition to the wild garden or middle border, though it's a good idea to contain their vigorous roots in a buried bottomless bucket. The oddly shaped, sweet-smelling flowers will attract a variety of feeding butterflies, and from summer through early fall, monarchs ready to lay eggs will seek out your planting. If you're extra lucky, you may find a delicate monarch chrysalis hanging below a milkweed leaf like a jade pendant, decorated with shining gold dots. Milkweed's well-behaved relative, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), bears glowing orange, red, or yellow flower clusters, and looks equally at home in a sunny wildflower meadow or perennial border. But while the aptly named butterfly bush (Buddleja alternifolia and B. davidii) attract a wealth of butterflies, they have proven invasive in several states and many gardeners are avoiding them because they can escape the bounds of the garden by self-sowing. 

If your aim is to attract a particular species, you'll need to do a bit of homework to find out its favorite nectar plants or caterpillar host plant(s). A field guide to butterflies is helpful in planning the butterfly garden. Look for a book with information about the plants that caterpillars eat, the plants from which the adults take nectar, and the drinking, sunning, or other unique habits of the adults. Detailed, full-color illustrations of both the caterpillar and adult stages, and information about the geographical area in which the insects are found, are also valuable. Books specifically on butterfly gardening are another excellent reference. Look online or at nature-oriented bookstores for titles to choose. You'll also find extensive online information on butterflies and butterfly gardening. 

If your goal is to attract as many butterflies as possible, check a field guide or search online to find out which species are found in your area, then create a checklist. Use your list to develop a custom-tailored butterfly garden of food and host plants. A local natural history museum, college entomology department, or butterfly club can give you more pointers. Entomology departments and agricultural extension services frequently publish articles and brochures on butterfly gardening in their state; you can also find many of these online.

Plants For Butterflies
Plants may serve as nectar sources for butterflies, as host plants for caterpillars, or as food for both adults and larvae. To increase the number of butterflies flitting about your garden, plant as many host plants and nectar sources in your yard and gardens as you can.

Blend butterfly-attracting weeds such as alfalfa, clovers, Queen-Anne's lace, milkweed, and cabbage-family members like field mustard (Brassica rapa) into a wildflower patch. And plant some extra parsley just for the larvae of the beautiful swallowtail butterflies. Some plants that butterflies appreciate are garden pests. These include dandelions, nettles, teasel, and thistles. Use common sense when creating your butterfly garden. 

The list below includes butterfly favorites suitable for all parts of the country.

Perennials + Annuals
Ageratum houstonianum (ageratum) 
Alcea rosea (hollyhock) 
Asclepias spp. (milkweeds, butterfly weed)
Aster spp. (asters)
Coreopsis spp. (coreopsis)
Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) 
Erigeron spp. (fleabanes) 
Eupatorium spp. (bonesets, Joe-Pye weeds) 
Grindelia spp. (gumweeds) 
Helenium autumnale (sneezeweed) 
Heliotropium arborescens (common heliotrope) 
Hemerocallis spp. (daylilies) 
Lavandula spp. (lavenders) 
Leucanthemum maximum (Shasta daisy) 
Leucanthemum vulgare (oxeye daisy) 
Lobularia maritima (sweet alyssum) 
Mentha spp. (mints) 
Monarda spp. (bee balms) 
Phlox spp. (phlox) 
Rudbeckia spp. (coneflowers) 
Salvia spp. (sages) 
Sedum spectabile (showy stonecrop) 
Solidago spp. (goldenrods) 
Thymus spp. (thymes) 
Verbena spp. (verbenas) 
Vernonia spp. (ironweeds) 
Zinnia spp. (zinnias)
Trees + Shrubs
Lonicera spp. (honeysuckles) 
Rhus spp. (sumacs) 
Salix spp. (willows) 
Syringa vulgaris (common lilac) 
Tilia americana (basswood)