Butterfly Flowers for Shade Gardens

Joe Pye weed in a shaded garden

The Spruce / Letícia Almeida 

Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that require the sun’s warmth to help their bodies work. However, you can grow both host and nectar flowering plants in shaded gardens adjacent to sun-drenched areas like driveways or patios, and still, attract winged visitors. In addition to butterflies seeking shelter from wind and rain, woodland butterflies like those in the satyr group may flit amongst your shady offerings. Add a mud-puddling area to provide minerals and drinking water, or a small log pile for roosting, and watch your butterfly population grow.

  • 01 of 10


    Astilbe (Astilbe)
    Ming Tang-Evans/Photolibrary/Getty Images

    An attractive perennial even when not in bloom, stately astilbes are excellent long-lived nectar providers for part or full shade gardens. Butterflies flock to pink and purple shades, like ‘Amethyst,’ ‘Montgomery,’ or the elegantly draping ‘Ostrich Plume.’

    Astilbes require copious moisture to thrive in the landscape; in fact, a rain garden is an ideal setting for these plants. Adding humus to the soil and using mulch generously will help keep the root system moist for healthy plants. 

  • 02 of 10


    Hoverfly on Boltonia Asteroides
    Carole Cote / Getty Images

    Also called wild aster or starwort, this 3-foot perennial is smothered with daisy-like white flowers in late summer and fall. This low maintenance native shrugs off pests but does appreciate consistent moisture. Gardeners may need to stake plants grown in shady gardens to maintain a tidy appearance.

  • 03 of 10

    Cardinal Flower

    Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower)
    Garden Photo World/Georgianna Lane / Getty Images

    These bright red tubular flowers are just as attractive to hummingbirds as they are to butterflies, and they make great cut flowers too. Cardinal flowers put up with a full day of shade, but they must never dry out. In fact, these are good candidates for a bog garden, and in their native habitat grow in wetlands or pond margins.

  • 04 of 10

    False Sunflower

    Heliopsis helianthoides / yellow garden flowers in the summer garden
    Olena Trunina / Getty Images

    Heliopsis flowers are tough plants that grow in average to heavy clay soils in areas as cold as zone 4. Partial sun is better than full shade for these flowers, but the plants can take over the garden if they like their site. In addition to nourishing butterflies, these nectar-rich plants are an important source of food for all types of bees and beneficial wasps. Remove spent blooms to reduce self-seeding volunteers.

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  • 05 of 10


    Honeysuckle (Temperate Flower)
    hsvrs / Getty Images

    Gardeners have a love-hate relationship with honeysuckle vines. The problem lies in the introduction of the non-native and invasive Amur, Morrow, and Tatarian honeysuckle shrubs from Asia that take over woodland habitats. For your shady butterfly habitat, you can still give the green light to native honeysuckles like ‘John Clayton,’ ‘Major Wheeler,’ or ‘Magnifica.’

  • 06 of 10


    Pink impaties
    Elizabeth Fernandez / Getty Images

    Impatiens may seem like clichéd bedding plants that pop up at every big box store in the spring, but improved varieties of this annual make it more versatile than ever for the shady butterfly garden, especially container gardens. The ‘Xtreme’ series tolerates hot summers and blooms continuously without pinching. The ‘Impreza’ series was bred to spread, covering your bare soil with flowers.

    All impatiens are easy to grow from seed, if you start them indoors about two months before last frost. Impatiens like ample amounts of water, and even do well on the banks of streams and ponds. 

  • 07 of 10

    Joe Pye Weed

    Joe Pye weed

    The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

    Joe pye weed is a standout specimen in large sunny borders and cottage gardens, but the flowers can tolerate dappled shade or afternoon shade. True to is name, the large plants can spread rampantly in untended spaces, but the smaller stature of ‘Little Joe’ Eupatorium plants make them more manageable in the small shade garden. Growing plants in a dry area also limits their spread. 

  • 08 of 10


    Lindera benzoin (spicebush)
    R. A. Nonenmacher/ CC BY-SA 4.0/ Wikimedia Commons

    The very early yellow flowers of the spicebush have an understated charm, and the foliage of this host plant sounds the dinner bell to the spicebush swallowtail. Give this shrub plenty of room to grow to its mature height of 10 feet in the woodland garden. In the fall, you’ll enjoy the golden foliage and bright red berries of the spicebush.

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  • 09 of 10


    Sweet violet Viola odorata purple woodland flower
    Whiteway / Getty Images

    Fritillary butterflies will feast on the leaves of the native Viola odorata, which grows as a shady groundcover. The petite plants are easy to tuck between rocks or at the edges of paths, where you can observe their tiny spring blossoms. Plant a named cultivar like 'Rosina' or 'Governor Herrick' for reliable performance and fragrance. 

    Sweet violets can be invasive, so you may need to take steps to keep them in bounds. Plants spread by prolific self-seeding, and deadheading the tiny plants is tedious, so a heavy mulch will reduce (but not eliminate) the spread of the plants. Yanking small seedlings when they emerge will also keep them from creeping into lawns or neighboring garden areas. 

  • 10 of 10

    Wreath Goldenrod

    Beautiful yellow goldenrod flowers blooming
    vdovichenkodenis / Getty Images

    Many gardeners are familiar with the Solidago wildflower species that flourish in sunny meadows, but some species, like the wreath goldenrod and the zigzag goldenrod, thrive in shade. If you’ve avoided goldenrod flowers in the past for allergy reasons, give this native another chance: Its pollen spreads via insect transference, and is not carried by the wind.