Gardening with Butterflies in Mind

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


A Black Swallowtail feasts upon the nectar in common phlox.]

When I first imagined my garden over twenty years ago, I had butterflies in mind.

Butterfly gardening isn’t difficult or complicated, but it does take some planning. Grow nectar-rich flowers for the adults and larval host plants for their young. Butterflies and caterpillars are particular about plants throughout their lifespan.

Try not to be overwhelmed by all the information out there. Start with these tricks:

• Research the butterflies most common in your region before buying plants.

• Place your garden in the sun with protection from the wind. Butterflies need warmth to fly.

• Provide shallow dishes of moist soil with pebbles for male butterflies to “puddle.” They gather nutrients and salts from soil which is part of the mating process.

• Don’t use pesticides. All beneficial insects are susceptible to pesticides. If you encourage a healthy ecosystem, bugs and birds will clean up most of the bad bugs anyway.


My cottage garden is full of lots of butterfly plants


A cottage garden filled to the brim with flowers from the Asteraceae family is a great place to start. Grow Rudbeckia spp., black-eyed Susans, and try a unique variety like R. hirta ‘Irish Eyes’ with its striking green centers. Don’t limit yourself to the “Susans” though. They are only part of the large and varied Asteraceae family. So are daisies, asters and mums. Butterflies and other pollinators love these plants, and you can’t go wrong with most of them.


An Eastern Swallowtail on ‘Bright Eyes’ phlox


Another nectar plant that keeps butterflies happy is Phlox paniculata ‘Bright Eyes,’ seen above. The “eye” is a visual landing pad. I also grow pink passalong phlox, and both types grow steadily with some irrigation. Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’ shasta daisies are great too. ‘Becky’ coordinates so well with rtemisia ludoviciana 'Silver King’ and Verbena bonariensis. Pentas are butterfly magnets in late summer when other flowers stop blooming.


A Gulf Fritillary butterfly lands on pentas


While most gardeners plant for adults, a good butterfly garden supports their entire life cycle. Choose plants that caterpillars love to munch. Larval plants are an essential part of keeping butterflies returning year after year. Adults need to mate and lay eggs before their lives end on a flutter of gossamer wings.

Common butterflies and their larval plants:

Swallowtails– Caterpillars eat dill, parsley and fennel. They will strip a dill plant to its stems in a few days, and some gardeners find this frustrating. I grow several dill plants in my flower garden along with my vegetable plot to keep them satisfied.

Monarchs– This fan favorite is in trouble. We must plant milkweeds in our gardens to save the Monarchs because their habitat is nearly gone in many places along their migration path. There are different types of milkweed. Choose one native to your area if you’re unsure. I’ve grown Asclepias incarnata, swamp milkweed, in my garden, along with A. tuberosa, butterfly weed. This year, I’m starting seeds of A. speciosa, showy milkweed. Viceroys and Queens, like the butterfly below, resemble Monarchs so get out your identification guide to see which are visiting your garden.


A Queen butterfly sips from a milkweed. It will probably lay eggs on this plant ensuring another generation


Gulf Fritillary– These caterpillars love the other-worldly passionflower vine. I planted two hardy Passiflora incarantato clamber up a trellis on one side of my deck. By late summer, they were eaten, but I was still happy because I want to help these orange beauties.


Gulf Fritillary caterpillars on my passionflower vine


One more thing: watch out for chrysalis in your fall garden. While most of us are familiar with the Monarch’s green and gold chrysalis, the Gulf Fritillary’s looks like an old gray leaf. Don’t be too fast to clear out your garden in fall. Many good creatures overwinter and hatch there. Some even unfurl their wings during winter in southern states.

We love butterflies. Their intense coloration and romantic flutterings have inspired art and literature since people first began putting pen to paper. Grow some of these plants and watch butterflies take flight in your garden too.