A butterfly garden is a popular feature in the home garden landscape. In fact, creating monarch butterfly way stations has become the major goal of preservationists across the United States. Flowering plants and shrubs like butterfly bush, butterfly weed, and the pincushion flower ‘Butterfly Blue' can attract these winged beauties to your garden, but learning about the life cycles and feeding habits of butterflies can increase your garden’s allure considerably. Read on to learn about important tips to help you create a productive butterfly garden.
What Is Butterfly Gardening?
Butterfly gardening is a way to design a garden that includes the general requirements to attract your local butterflies, including full sun, lack of pesticides, plenty of nectar sources, and larval host plants for eggs and larvae food.
Plant Butterfly-Friendly Flowers
It's tough to find a flower that repels a butterfly. However, many flowers that attract butterflies will also attract bees and quite possibly hummingbirds. For the most vibrant, healthy garden, you'll want all of these creatures flittering about! Here are some of the most popular perennials, shrubs, and nectar-rich blooms that you can plant to call in the butterflies.
Traditional flowers that you see in butterfly gardens include brightly colored plants with shallow blossoms that allow easy nectar access. Popular butterfly perennials include the following:
Flowering shrubs add structure to the landscape while nourishing butterflies. The following plants and shrubs all thrive in full sun, which butterflies need to maintain their metabolism. Include these:
Stick to nectar-rich flowers instead of sterile hybrid flowers to ensure that butterflies receive a steady supply of nectar. Plant nectar flowers in groups instead of singly. Butterflies prefer to move from bloom to bloom of the same type of flower rather than fly from one nectar plant in search of another that may be growing some distance away. Include the following:
Provide Flowers of Varying Heights
In addition to a variety of colors, include plants of differing heights to attract more butterflies. A short row of flowering bedding plants may look attractive to homeowners, but it doesn’t satisfy the needs of some butterflies.
In nature, butterflies fill specific feeding niches by focusing on flowers at certain heights. By including flowers that grow at a range of heights, you can achieve a professional-looking border, and you will attract a greater variety of butterflies. For example, tiger swallowtail butterflies seek tall flowers like Joe Pye weed and honeysuckle vines. The least skipper butterfly and little yellow butterfly prefer flowers closer to the ground, like lavender, dianthus, and asters.
Add Plants for Butterfly Caterpillars
Serious butterfly gardeners plant both nectar and host plants to foster generations of butterflies. Host plants provide females a place to lay eggs and also offer necessary food for growing caterpillars. Here are a few favored flowers and plants for various types of butterflies:
- Aster flowers are important sources of nectar for migrating butterflies in the fall, but before that, the larvae of the pearl crescent butterfly feed on the foliage.
- Butterfly weed and other plants in the milkweed family offer monarch butterflies a critical food source with an unpalatable toxin that repels birds and other predators.
- Passionflower offers food for the showy zebra longwing butterfly, commonly found in Florida and Texas, which only feeds its babies exclusively on the foliage.
- Sweet peas, a host plant, will attract the iridescent Eastern tailed-blue to gardens in the Eastern half of the United States.
Choose a Sunny Location
A spot that is very sunny, especially in the morning, is important for a butterfly garden. Butterflies, and the plants that provide the most nectar for them, need between 6 to 8 hours of full sun to thrive. Butterflies require sun for the following reasons:
- They are cold-blooded creatures that prefer to feed when the sun is out.
- They bask in the morning sun to warm up their wings and bodies for flight.
- They need the morning sun to orient themselves for flight.
Keep butterflies toasty by placing materials around your yard that will warm up quickly when exposed to the direct morning sun, such as flat stones, patches of soil, and even pavement.
Include Butterfly Shelter Areas
Butterflies need shelter from wind and rain but will seek out natural areas such as dense shrubbery or stacked wood. Butterfly houses that look like wooden blocks with tall, narrow slots can serve as a colorful piece of yard art in your butterfly garden. They are more likely, though, to attract a paper wasp colony, which will make it a butterfly's last choice for a place to hibernate or rest.
Offer Alternative Butterfly Foods
It can be challenging to keep all your nectar and host plants going all season long. Thankfully many butterflies are attracted to alternate food sources such as sweet liquids or mushy fruits. Placing items in a shallow dish will help to continue the feeding cycle for adult butterflies when nectar plants move past bloom. Replace the fruit frequently to discourage wasps and ants from taking over the buffet. You can also cover the fruit with a window screen to block wasps and bees. With their long proboscis, butterflies will still be able to feed. Include the following alternative foods in your butterfly garden.
- Overripe fruit like peaches, pears, apples, and bananas
- Liquid fruit nectar from a can
- Fruit juice
- Sugar water
- Clear sports drinks
Fermented beer or a drop or two of molasses can act as a condiment on the fruit of the main dish, proving irresistible to some butterflies. Butterflies taste with their feet before using their proboscis so when using a sticky substance such as molasses, place a tiny drop on fruit and place it on a small sponge so it can be somewhat absorbed, preventing the insect from becoming stuck.
Provide Butterfly Puddling Stations
Butterflies seek shallow puddles in the garden as a source of drinking water and a way to obtain vital minerals. In fact, the cloudless sulphur butterfly and the sleepy orange butterfly may congregate en masse in muddy areas, in bog gardens, or with the partridge pea plant where they use the plant as a host for their larvae. Look for this puddling behavior in the hottest part of the day, and keep your soil free of chemicals that can harm sensitive butterflies. A shallow dish filled with pebbles or sand and water can act as a valuable drinking station on hot days.
Avoid Pesticides That Harm Butterflies
When it comes to pest control, butterfly gardeners must tread lightly. Most pesticides will harm or kill butterflies (as well as other beneficial pollinators like bees and parasitic wasps). Even organic pest control options like insecticidal soap or neem oil can kill butterflies or disrupt their feeding and mating habits. However, this doesn't mean you have to hand your flowers over to the aphids. Only use pesticides to treat insect outbreaks, not as a preventative treatment. Finally, try non-pesticide insect controls, like floating row covers, jets of water to blast away small insects, and hand-picking large insects like beetles off of your plants.
Monarch Waystation Program. Monarch Watch Organization.
Butterfly Gardening. Missouri Botanical Garden.
Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos). Alabama Butterfly Atlas. University of South Florida.
Native Passionflower Vine Shares Special Relationship with Two Florida Butterfly Species. University of Florida. IFAS Extension.
The Basics of Butterfly Gardening. North American Butterfly Association.
Supplementary Feeding for Butterflies. City of Austin, Parks & Recreation, Zilker Botanical Garden.