Of all the visitors to my garden…
Butterflies are perhaps the most magical. There’s just something about these gentle creatures with their colorful, dancing wings that makes my garden complete. Many butterflies are attracted to the nectar offered by the colorful flowers I grow in my garden, but nectar-bearing flowers are just part of the story: butterflies are also looking for the perfect plant to lay their eggs on so that the baby caterpillars that hatch will have the kind of leaves they need to eat to grow and thrive (and eventually turn into butterflies themselves). Here’s how to get started growing your own butterfly garden:
Most butterflies like a sunny place to soak up some rays (they are cold-blooded), plus most nectar-rich flowers like sun too, so pick a site for your butterfly garden that gets the morning sun and at least 8 hours of full sun a day. Even the rays of the Arizona sun aren’t too warm for butterflies to hatch.
Flowers: Candy is Dandy
The simplest butterfly gardens are just flower gardens full of flowers adult butterflies like to sip sweet nectar from. This kind of butterfly garden is a “candy” garden: fun to look at, offering sweet snacks to adult butterflies. But sometimes, candy is dandy, so if attracting butterflies to watch flitting around is your aim, this garden will suit you just fine. Choose flowering plants you like to look at and select a variety so that there will always be something in bloom (plants that bloom late spring through fall are ideal). Old fashioned single varieties are often better nectar sources than very double ones are.
Try these annuals for a quick butterfly garden (some are perennial in warm Zones):
- Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum)
- Aster, China (Callistephus chinensis)
- Blue salvia (Salvia farinacea)
- Borage (Borago officinalis)
- Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
- Lantana (Lantana camara)
- Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
- Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)
- Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus and C. sulphureus)
- Dahlia (Dahlia cv.)
- Garden heliotrope (Heliotrope arborescens)
- Marigold (Tagetes patula and others)
- Mignonette (Reseda odorata)
- Pentas (Pentas spp.)
- Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans)
- Popcorn plant (Cassia didymobotrya or Senna didymobotrya)
- Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)
- Spider flower (Cleome spp.)
- Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
- Tithonia (Tithonia rotundifolia)
- Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)
Perennial Flowers: Candy that Comes Back
If you want to establish a flower bed that comes back and attracts butterflies year after year, try these showy perennials that thrive in many areas (plus, look for other showy wildflowers and flowering shrubs native to your area):
- Aster, New England (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, was Aster novae-angliae, Zones 3 to 9)
- Bee Balm (Monarda didyma, Zones 4 to 9)
- Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia, Zones 3 to 9)
- Butterfly Weed (Asclepius tuberosa)
- Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum cvs., Zones 5 to 8)
- Coneflower (Echinacea spp., Zones 3 to 9)
- Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp., Zones 3 to 11)
- Goldenrod (Solidago spp., Zones 3 to 9)
- Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum, Zones 3 to 9)
- Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia, Zones 4 to 9)
- Sedum, Autumn Joy (Sedum ‘Autumn Joy,’ Zones 3 to 8)
If you’re wondering which soil combo is best, check out my soil recipe here.
Food for a Family: Lovely Leaves!
Flowers are fun, but when a butterfly is ready to lay eggs she looks for the perfect plant with leaves that will nourish her baby caterpillars. A few kinds of caterpillars aren’t too picky about what they munch, but many are highly specific and without exactly the right (usually native) plants, there will be no new butterflies to enjoy. Give them what they need, however, and they will make your yard a home.
One example you are probably familiar with of a butterfly that needs a specific plant for its caterpillars to eat is the Monarch: Monarch caterpillars eat milkweeds, including the showy orange Butterfly weed (Asclepius tuberosa), common milkweed (A. syriaca), swamp milkweed (A. incarnate) and others (check which species are native in your area and plant those).
Where can you find out your native butterflies (and their preferred plants) in order to perfect your butterfly garden?
Every region of the country and every type of habitat (grassland, forest, wetland) has its own unique and lovely cast of butterflies. Check out a local butterfly garden, consult a guidebook, or try this amazing online tool from the National Wildlife Federation: plug in your Zip code and you will get a customized list of all the butterflies native in your area. Click on the ones you would like to attract to find out what flowers, shrubs, and trees to plant to attract them. It even lets you make selections and save them for future reference! Many of these are found on Amazon here.
Water: Puddle Station
Butterflies don’t need a lot of water but will sip from a birdbath if you put a few rocks in it for them to alight on, or you can make a butterfly puddle station by putting a shallow pan in the shade, filling it with clean sand, and keeping it full of water. This is also great for bees, who make a big difference in the success of your garden!
Where to buy Baby Caterpillars
Once you have your warmth, flowers, yummy leaves, and a drink for your fluttery friends, they’re all ready to move in! Butterflies will naturally be attracted to your garden and you’ll start to see an increase of them throughout the spring. If you’re impatient, however, you can get a kit of baby caterpillars to get started now!
A note about plants, insecticides, and butterflies: Many insecticides, even organic ones, will kill adult butterflies and/or caterpillars (baby butterflies), so avoid using them in your butterfly garden. It is also important to either grow your own plants from seed or buy plants that were raised organically or at least by a nursery that does not use systemic insecticides (long-lasting man-made chemicals that get inside the cells of the plant and remain there for months). Amazon has many plants free of these here. Here is a list of other retailers that have pledged not to sell plants treated with neonicotinoids, one of the most insidious of the synthetic insecticides.
Thank you for the article! Don’t moth and butterfly caterpillars eat basil, lettuce, parsley and other crops? Thanks
(farm expert) Bobbi Luttjohann says
Yes, there are species of caterpillars in the butterfly and moth family that will eat those plants and others. If you want to keep the butterflies and moths off of them you can use row covers, but know those plants needing pollination won’t be able to get pollinated. One thing I do, since we have so many swallowtails come through that love our parsley, I just plant enough for me and them. It’s my way of living with nature instead of against it. I hope this helps. Thanks -Bobbi