Butterfly Flowers for Shade Gardens

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...MORE 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
    Boltonia
    F.D. Richards

    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
    Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower)
    wplynn/ Flickr/ CC BY-ND 2.0

    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
    Daryl Mitchell

    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.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10
    Honeysuckle
    John Williams

    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
    Impatiens
    Chris Gladis

    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....MORE Impatiens like ample amounts of water, and even do well on the banks of streams and ponds. 

  • 07 of 10
    Joe Pye Weed
    Liz West

    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.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10
    Violet
    Tim Lindenbaum

    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...MORE 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
    Fritz Flohr Reynolds/ Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0

    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.