If you’re like an increasing number of gardeners, you want to attract butterflies to your garden. Butterflies are truly the winged jewels of our landscape. Not only are butterflies beautiful, they serve the greater purpose of helping to pollinate plants and provide food for other important insects in the pollinator food chain.
While monarch butterflies are my current focus, they weren’t always. But as most gardeners soon learn, one thing in the garden leads to another. When you plant a seed, you learn about soil. When plants grow in your garden, you learn about weather and the insects those plants attract. With more insects, more songbirds are likely to visit your property, too.
See what I mean? One thing in the garden really does lead to another, and another, and …
So, if you want to attract more butterflies to your garden, it’s helpful to know what plants and plant attributes butterflies enjoy. Keep the following tips in mind and you’ll be on your way toward having a successful butterfly garden.
Reduce the Use of Pesticides to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when trying to attract butterflies and other pollinators to your garden is to “first, do no harm.” Herbicide and pesticide use can greatly affect the success of your garden when you’re hoping to attract butterflies and other beneficial insects.
Reduce the use of chemical pesticides as much as possible, or vow to go chemical-free altogether. Remember too, that just because a product is labeled “organic” doesn’t mean it’s safe to use around insects. Pesticides are meant to kill and that’s what they’ll do, whether they’re organic or not.
Grow Both Host and Nectar Plants
If you want to successfully attract butterflies to your garden, you should grow both “host plants” and “nectar plants.” Host plants are those that are necessary for reproduction. Some butterflies are specialists, such as the monarch, which requires milkweed (and only milkweed) for its caterpillars. Other butterflies, such as swallowtails, use several related members of a particular plant family, including dill, fennel, parsley, carrots, and Queen Anne’s lace.
Nectar plants are those plants that provide nourishment (in the form of nectar) to the adult butterflies. A butterfly has a proboscis that it uses to sip the nectar from flowers, so it loves flowers that have adapted to its feeding habits. For example, butterflies love purple coneflowers, but the newer hybrid double-petal varieties with the fluffy flowers make the nectar harder to get to. As a result, many pollinators will avoid them. It’s okay to grow these hybrids (they are pretty!), but make sure you grow those that have “naked” flower centers, too.
Space Flowers to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden
Locate your flowering plants throughout your property rather than relegating your garden to just a patch at the back or in the corner. Many butterflies are “hoppers,” meaning they like to sip a little nectar from this flower and a little from that one. Your chances of attracting butterflies will be better if you have a variety of flowers scattered about.
Choose plant varieties so you’ll have blooms throughout the growing season, too. Late-blooming flowers are especially important for those butterflies that migrate in the fall, such as monarchs.
As the season progresses, be sure to deadhead the flowers of your annuals so you’ll get a second and possibly third flush of blooms. Annual plants only live one growing season. So, their main goal is to flower and then form seeds so they can provide a new generation of plants the following year. If you cut the flowers before they have a chance to set seeds, they’ll bloom again in another attempt to seed.
Deadheading spent flowers is can also be productive for perennials. Some perennials will rebloom after deadheading, including butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Sometimes gardens need a little help during the heat of the summer. Read 5 Ways to Revitalize Your Garden in Summer for more tips.
Plants that Attract Butterflies to Your Garden
Here’s a list of some common U.S. butterflies and the host plants they need for reproduction:
Monarch Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
Tiger swallowtail Cherry, ash, birch and tulip trees, lilacs
Mourning cloak Willow, aspen, birch and hackberry trees
Painted lady Hollyhock, thistles, mallows
American lady Sweet everlasting, pussy-toes, Helichrysum spp.
Red admiral Nettles
Great spangled fritillary Violets
Eastern black swallowtail Dill, parsley, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, carrots
Viceroy Willows and cottonwood
Question mark American elm, stinging nettle, false nettle
Orange sulphur Alfalfa, white clover, vetches
Many of the butterfly-friendly plants are available at local garden centers. American Meadows is a great online source for many butterfly plants including milkweed and other flowering perennials.
Adult butterflies will sip nectar at a large number of flowering plants, shrubs, and trees. They prefer native plants, but they’ll take nectar where they can get it. Some flowering plants that make them especially happy are goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, phlox, coneflower, verbena, lavender, aster, lantana, ironweed, mint, zinnia, lilac, milkweed, tickseed, blazing star (Liatris spp.), marigold, Cosmos, salvia, Agastache, and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
When the Season Is Over
If you’re growing plants to attract butterflies to your garden, consider the entire life cycle of butterflies. Not all butterflies migrate. When fall comes and it’s time to put the garden to bed for the winter, whether you live in a cold climate or a warm one, remember that many butterflies and other beneficial insects will overwinter in your yard. Many live in the leaf litter and in hollow plant stems. That’s why you should wait until spring to do any major garden cleanup. This will ensure that next year’s population will be healthy and robust.
Follow these tips and I guarantee you will attract butterflies to your garden. Enjoy the show!
Kylee Baumle is the author of two books, including the best-selling THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly (St. Lynn’s Press).