Gardening Basics

How to Attract Butterflies to Your Garden

Attractive Butterfly

Many gardeners want to attract butterflies, but it’s not always an easy task. In fact, it’s a very unique experience, because butterflies tend to be choosy. They look for certain conditions in the garden and they have very specific requirements. First and foremost, they are looking for a shelter from wind and sunshine.

Any garden can have typical pests (such as aphids), but attracting butterflies such as red admirals, painted ladies and tiger swallowtails requires certain skill and special care.

What do Butterflies Need?

If you want to plant your garden for butterflies, you should worry more about the content of the garden than its design. In other words, the plants you are going to include are the most important. Butterflies are looking for nectar during the growing season, so your garden has to provide it.

The good news is that many of the common annuals and perennials can provide the needed nectar. Butterflies have a “cosmopolitan” taste, so they prefer both native species and exotic ones. It’s a bit different for caterpillars, since they prefer native species. The adult butterflies, however, take nectar from many different domestic and exotic plants they can find.

Another thing to keep in mind is that butterflies seem to be very attracted to gardens rich with nectar flower of any kind. This is why it’s best to plant many nectar flowers. For example, if you go with Jupiter’s-beard (Centranthus ruber), don’t plant only a few plants. Grow at least 3-4 (or even more) patches of this nectar flower. It will sure help you attract butterflies.

Some good plants to use in your garden to attract butterflies:

  • Plants that produce nectar early and mid-spring: Grape hyacinths, Pulmonaria, rock cress, azaleas, lilacs, wallflowers and pinks
  • Late spring, summer and autumn blooms: Primula vialii, (a June-blooming orchid primrose), June-blooming yarrows (Achillea), yellow ‘Taygetea’ and ‘Moonshine’, Eupatorium purpureum, red bee balm (Monarda), a tall hybrid yarrow, ‘Coronation Gold’, Agastache foeniculum, rosy-flowered ice plant (Hylotelephium spectabile ‘Carmen’), and the little Mexican daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus).
  • September and October blooming plants include purple hardy asters, golden sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) and ‘Taiyo’ sunflowers.
  • Drought-tolerant butterfly flowers: Asters (Aster novi-belgii), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Coreopsis, fleabane (Erigeron), Jupiter’s-beard, Lantana, lavender, Sedum, verbena. These plants will do great in dry, sunny places.
Attractive Butterfly

How to Organize the Garden

The above mentioned plants are great for attracting butterflies. To make the most of your garden, you need to think about the soil and general conditions in your garden. In case there’s a low, damp area in your garden, you should use it to plant moisture-loving plants, such as rosy-flowered swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Joe-pye weed, forget-me-nots, bee balm, and meadow sweet (Filipendula palmata).

You can create a small, shallow puddle that will attracts numerous butterflies, such as swallowtails, blues and sulfurs. These butterflies will love mud puddles and will use them for drinking. They do this to obtain necessary salts for their diet. To make the puddles even more attractive to butterflies, consider adding a sprinkling of table salt and a bit of manure to the puddles. However, make sure not to go overboard: salt can damage the plants so use a plastic liner to isolate the puddle from your flower border.

Another thing to keep in mind is that any butterfly garden should not use herbicides or insecticides. Many pesticides will kill butterfly larvae or adult butterflies. This means that you will get some caterpillars in your garden, but don’t worry too much about it. They will chew on the leaves a bit, but they have numerous natural predators to keep them under control. Also, remember that larvae of many butterflies feed only on selected plants and trees.

Actually, occasional presence of butterfly caterpillars in the garden is a good thing. It comes with having butterflies in the garden, and it’s not damaging. West coast ladies like to lay eggs on certain plants, while painted ladies choose different plants for this purpose. However, that doesn’t automatically mean that your garden will be full of adult butterflies. Remember, caterpillars have many enemies (wasps, birds) so they control butterfly population. Chances are that you will end up with a moderate number of caterpillars and butterflies.

The Most Common Garden Butterflies

There are many different species of butterflies you will likely attract in your garden. In order to enjoy butterflies, you will need to learn how to recognize them in all stages of their life. It means you will have to recognize them both as adults and as larvae.

Butterflies begin their life as an egg. The egg soon becomes a larva (a caterpillar). After feeding, butterfly caterpillars pupate in a chrysalis. Finally, they transform in beautiful adult butterflies.

Here is the list of the most popular garden butterflies:

  • Monarch (Danaus plexippus). These are among the most popular butterflies. Their larvae absorb toxins from their food plant, milkweed, which makes them toxic to predators. Birds avoid them, both in caterpillar and adult form.
  • Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus and P. rutulus). These butterflies’ caterpillars live in a leaf shelter of their food plant. It’s usually a tree, such as cherry, birch, poplar and basswood. The adults are large and make a very common sight in many gardens.
  • Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). They have caterpillars of various colors, but yellow stripes are characteristic for this species. The adults are very adaptable, which makes this species completely widespread.
  • Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). These butterflies have a name that comes from silvery “spangles” visible on the undersides of their wings. These butterflies prefer violets as their main food plant when they are in their caterpillar form.
  • Buckeye (Junonia coenia). This is a very garden-friendly butterfly because it eats weed such as plantain. Adult butterflies of this species have characteristic “eyespots” on both wings. These are used to frighten predators.
  • Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). These butterflies have tiny caterpillars. Their caterpillars feed on nettles, elm, poplar, birch and willow. You can find the adult butterflies sunbathing on sunny, late winter days. They are a sure sign that the spring is near.
  • Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta). This butterflies have caterpillars that feed on nettle plants, inside an individual lead and tied up with silk. Adult butterflies prefer to spend their time on sunny garden paths. They also like to rest on wooden structures or even humans.
  • Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). Their caterpillars prefer plants of the carrot family, including carrots, dill, and parsley. You will be able to observe the adult butterflies and soon after, the caterpillars will appear in your garden.

Photo credit: Puzzler4879 via photopin cc