Plant Butterfly Weed for Attracting Monarch, Swallowtail Butterflies

Plants for Attracting Tiger, Black Swallowtails

Pink butterfly weed flowers with a cream colored swallowtail butterfly on top

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Why grow a plant with the rather unappealing name of "butterfly weed"? Well, for those who appreciate the beauty of flowers, a garden designed to attract monarch butterflies is a natural extension of the purely horticultural side of their landscaping. Attracting monarch butterflies to the landscape begin with recognizing the fact that the monarch butterfly is attracted to different plants at different points of its life cycle.

Of course, there's more to the butterfly world than monarchs. And attracting other butterflies, including tiger swallowtails and black swallowtails, depends on recognizing this same fact: grow particular plants to attract adult swallowtails, and grow another set of plants to serve as hosts for swallowtail caterpillars. Although sometimes you get lucky, and a single plant can serve a double function. Butterfly weed is such a plant (for a picture of butterfly weed, see the photo above).

Buy It as Butterfly "Plant," Grow It as Butterfly "Weed"

Before listing the plants that are effective for attracting adult butterflies with their nectar (Page 3), as well as those plants sought as hosts by their larvae, or "caterpillars" (Page 2), I'd like, to begin with, some information about one flower that is rather special. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a type of milkweed, and as such is automatically a potential host for the monarch's caterpillars (although the common milkweed is perhaps superior in this regard). It is also a favorite nectar source of a number of butterfly species, including the tiger swallowtail and black swallowtail. It should be immediately apparent, then, why this perennial is widely thought of simply as "the butterfly plant."

Butterfly weed is also a very attractive landscaping plant in its own right, even if you’re not interested in planting a butterfly garden. It is also deer-resistant. Furthermore, those in eastern North America looking to "go native" may wish to reserve a spot for it in native perennial sun gardens. When nurseries and seed companies aren't pushing it as the "butterfly plant," the preferred moniker seems to be, "butterfly flower." The rationale appears to be that, if people are being asked to pay money for something, it doesn't seem prudent to market it as a weed. Yet as a type of milkweed, that's precisely what it is -- and the butterflies won't mind a bit. In fact, they're rather partial to weeds.

Adult butterflies crave nectar from flowers -- the more, the better. Some flowers contain more nectar, and it is these that will be most effective in attracting butterflies. Flower color can also be important, with more vibrant colors attracting butterflies more readily -- especially when single colors are grouped in masses. Butterflies are near-sighted and are more easily attracted to large stands of a particular color. In addition, some plants are easier than others for butterflies to land on.

But as we'll see on Page 2, you don't even need to grow flowers, per se to attract butterflies. The caterpillars of both tiger swallowtails and black swallowtails feed on some popular garden plants that are also eaten by humans. But most folks will prefer to attract butterflies while at the same time enjoying the lovely flowering plants craved by numerous kinds of butterflies.

Landscaping enthusiasts are very much on the same page in this matter as the French poet, Ecouchard Le Brun, when he wrote, "The butterfly is a flying flower, the flower a tethered butterfly." Anyone interested in beautifying the landscape with delicate flowers understands this connection, drawn so succinctly by the poet.

In addition to butterfly weed, numerous plants, ranging from trees to annuals, serve as hosts for caterpillars. Many of these plants, such as fragrant viburnum shrubs and red oak trees, will enhance any landscape, regardless of whether you wish to attract butterflies or not.

Since the diversity of plant host options for butterfly caterpillars is so impressive, I think the most instructive way to organize them for presentation is to group them by plant type. I will restrict myself to a few examples, since my intention is not to be exhaustive, but rather merely to introduce the subject. Butterfly species especially drawn to a particular plant are noted. As usual, I provide the common names, as well as the scientific names used in plant taxonomy:

Trees and Shrubs as Caterpillar Food

  • Flowering dogwood trees, (such as Cornus florida): Spring azure blue butterfly caterpillars.
  • Viburnums (such as the fragrant Korean spice viburnumViburnum Carlesimo 'Aurora'; for a picture of Korean spice viburnum see photo at top of page): Spring azure blues.
  • Easter cottonwood (Populus deltoides): Tiger swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.
  • Oak trees (such as red oak trees, Quercus rubra): Red-spotted purple butterfly caterpillars.

Herbs and Vegetables as Caterpillar Food

  • Curly-leaf parsley (Petroselinum crispum) and dill (Anethum graveolens): Black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.
  • Carrots (Daucus carota) and celery (Apium graveolens): Black swallowtail.

Wildflowers as Caterpillar Food

  • Common milkweed (Asclepias Syria): Monarch butterfly caterpillars.
  • Red clover (Trifolium pratense): Clouded sulfur butterfly caterpillars.

Perennial Flowers as Caterpillar Food

  • Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea): Painted Lady and checkered skipper butterfly caterpillars.
  • Steeplebush, or meadowsweet (Spiraea tomentose): Spring azure blues.

Annual Flowers as Caterpillar Food

  • Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnate): Painted Lady.
  • Zinnia (Zinnia elegans): Silver-spotted skipper butterfly capterpillars.

After your caterpillars grow up to become adult butterflies, thanks to the nourishment you've provided them on Page 2, you will, of course, want to have other flowers in your butterfly garden suitable to adult butterfly tastes. The following short list of possible options is headed by butterfly bushes, and it's filled out with numerous wildflowers, including black-eyed Susan.

Butterfly bushes (Buddleja David) have a prime place in butterfly gardens and are particularly adept at attracting tiger swallowtails (for a picture of butterfly bush, see photo at top of page). Butterfly bushes can grow 6'-12' tall and have a spread of 4'-15' in warm climates, but even so, the recommended care of butterfly bushes is to prune them back to the ground in the winter garden. The butterfly bushes will re-emerge from their roots in spring. Blooms tend to be larger and more prolific on the new growth of butterfly bushes, giving you the incentive to prune them. You essentially want to treat butterfly bushes as if they were herbaceous perennials rather than shrubs. Blooms on butterfly bushes can be purple, pink, white, or red, and they usually have an orange "throat" in the center. Zones 5-10.

Like butterfly weed (see information on Page 1), butterfly bush is sometimes referred to simply as "the butterfly plant." Indeed, both deserve such an epithet, for they are two of the must-have plants for attracting butterflies to the landscape. This common trait notwithstanding, however, butterfly weed is an utterly different plant from the butterfly bush. The two plants are not even related to each other.

Since butterflies have been sipping nectar for a much longer time than humans have been growing flowers in gardens, it should come as no surprise that adult butterflies are attracted to numerous wildflowers. Below I will merely list some examples of such wildflowers in North America.

The purists will be quick to point out that not all North American wildflowers are indigenous to North America. Some of the wildflowers we assume to be indigenous to North America -- because they are so ubiquitous on that continent -- have, in fact, been imported from Europe and Asia. These plants are "wild" not because they are natives, but because they have become naturalized. But for many, the true wildflower garden consists solely of indigenous plants. Naturalized invaders are often invasive plants that crowd out native populations.

Wildflower Gardens for Attracting Butterflies

Wildflower gardens have become quite popular in landscaping -- for a number of reasons. They are often seen as a compromise between, on the one hand, growing no flowers at all and, on the other, spending an excessive amount of time and money maintaining a more lavish, formal landscape. Others opt for wildflower gardens to promote environmentalism, or simply because they feel wildflowers bring them closer to nature. In the following list butterfly species especially drawn to a particular plant are noted:

  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpura) and others, including Echinacea 'Firebird': Tiger swallowtails, monarch, skippers, fritillary, viceroy.
  • Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis): Clouded sulfur, monarch, American small copper, gray hairstreak.
  • Common milkweed (Asclepias Syria): Monarchs, gray hairstreak, variegated fritillary.
  • Asters (such as the New England aster, Aster novae-angle): American small copper.
  • Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum): Silver-spotted skipper.
  • Violets (such as Viola papilionaceous): Spring azure blues.
  • Ironweed (Vernonia Nove Orac NSIS): Fiery skipper.
  • Coreopsis (such as the Coreopsis verticillate): Buckeyes.

Butterfly bushes work well with these wildflowers in forming butterfly gardens. 

The plants used for drawing hummingbirds to the backyard are often recommended for attracting butterflies, as well. But the optimal butterfly garden requires a slightly different design from that of the hummingbird garden. Since Pages 1, 2 and 3 have already covered the plants used for attracting butterflies, the purpose of the present page is to provide information concerning these design nuances. The idea is to create just the right environment to lure these winged wonders.

To begin, remember that, for all their beauty, butterflies are insects, and they are therefore cold-blooded. Consequently, a butterfly garden should be an open, sunny garden, because the butterfly needs sunlight to warm its body. No matter how conscientious you've been in selecting plants for attracting butterflies, not many of your winged friends will visit your garden unless the temperature reaches at least 60°F. Furnish your butterfly gardens with flat rocks that will warm up in the sun. Butterflies will use these as basking perches.

But even cold-blooded creatures can get too hot sometimes. Furnish butterfly gardens with damp areas, too, so that your butterflies will have a place to take a break from the heat. Because butterflies can't drink from open water sources, a birdbath just won't do.

Instead, supply an area with moist sand or mud. Certain types of butterflies congregate around such mud puddles to cool off, and perhaps also to imbibe the salts and other needed minerals that have been dissolved in the water. Also, furnish your butterfly garden with shelter from high winds. Trees and shrubs can provide such shelter. While you're at it, you might as well choose trees that butterfly larvae can also derive food from (see Page 2 for some options).

Avoid using insecticides if you're committed to attracting butterflies to your backyard. Most garden insecticides are lethal to caterpillars. Adult butterflies also can be killed simply by coming into contact with surfaces tainted by insecticide. All of your work in designing a butterfly garden will go for naught if you end up killing the butterflies with insecticide.

To review, the successful butterfly garden consists of the following components:

  • Host plants for caterpillars.
  • Nectar plants for adults.
  • Abundant sunshine.
  • Wet sand or mud puddles in shady nooks.
  • Shelter from high winds.
  • An environment kept healthy through the absence of insecticides.

Note: Thanks to the "Butterfly Gardens" group at GardenWeb for help with this article.