Gardening for Butterflies

Monarch butterfly on Zinnia flower, a butterfly nectar plant

Monarch butterfly on Zinnia flower, a butterfly nectar plant

Butterflies are delightful living jewels that beautify any garden.  With a little planning, you can create a garden that welcomes butterflies in all their life stages for enjoyment throughout the summer.

Planting flowers that supply adult butterflies with nectar will attract some butterflies to your garden, but to attract and keep many different species to enjoy you’ll have to include host plants also.  What are host plants? They are the plants that female butterflies lay their eggs on the hatch into caterpillars.  Each species of butterfly has specific plant or plants that nourish the growing caterpillar and they cannot survive on any other plant.  Your host plants will be eaten by the caterpillars, so remember not to worry about holes on the leaves-and no pesticides unless absolutely unavoidable.  

Host Plants

There are many host plants already in or near your landscape if you live near natural areas like woods or meadows.  Several commonly planted ornamental plants are also host plants and may already be in your garden.  

Nectar Plants    

Adult butterflies drink nectar from flowers, and having a selection of nectar plants that bloom in succession throughout the season will bring butterflies to your garden.  Annuals tend to have longer bloom times than perennials.  Look for “old fashioned” varieties and single flowers instead of double flowered forms.  Look in the seed section for plants suitable for butterflies.  Butterflies prefer mass plantings of a variety to single plants, and also favor purple, lavender & pink flowers (but other colors will attract butterflies also).  You’ll see that some plants are both host plants and nectar plants, so plant plenty of those!

Other ways to attract butterflies:

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on butterfly buish

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on butterfly buish

  • Protect your butterfly garden from strong wind by creating it near a wall, fence or other windbreak.
  • Provide a patch or pot of damp sand. Butterflies cannot drink from open water like birdbaths but can drink from very shallow puddles or damp areas.
  • Provide basking stones. Butterflies are cold-blooded and need the sun’s rays to warm up enough to fly on cool mornings.
  • Leave some areas of your property “natural” if possible to provide wild host and nectar plants a place to grow.
  • Make a butterfly feeder (a fun kid’s project): Drill a small hole in the lid of a small jar. Plug the hole with cotton. Fill the jar with a solution of one part table sugar (not honey) to nine parts water. Decorate the lid with colorful “petals” and hang in a tree near your butterfly garden.

A word about Butterfly Houses...              

Occasionally, a butterfly may take refuge in your butterfly house, but most will prefer to hide in natural areas, under loose tree bark, in tall unmowed grass and undisturbed brush piles.  Enjoy your butterfly house as a garden ornament, but don’t be disappointed if butterflies don’t take up residence.