Quick Facts…

  • You can encourage butterflies to your yard by planning a butterfly garden.
  • Butterflies seek out areas with food plants for the caterpillar stage. Adult butterflies also feed on fluids such as nectar from flowers.
  • Butterfly visits increase when environmental needs are met.
  • Gardening practices to attract and retain butterflies often differ from regular gardening practices.
  • Butterflies often appear to be just passing through, occasionally stopping for a drink of nectar. You can prolong the stay of these colorful insects and draw in others by providing the food and shelter they need.

Planning a Butterfly Garden

Make a yard more attractive to butterflies by providing the proper environment, which can be food plants used by the immature stages (various caterpillars), food sources used by the adult butterflies, and physical environment.

Most butterflies prefer some shelter from the high winds. At the same time, they like open, sunny areas. Windbreak plantings or other means of sheltering the butterfly garden can help provide a suitable physical environment.

Certain kinds of butterflies (mostly males) often can be seen on moist sand or mud collecting around puddles of water where they feed. The function of these “mud-puddle clubs” is not fully understood, but it is thought that the water contains dissolved minerals needed by the insects. Maintaining a damp, slightly salty area in the yard may attract groups of these butterflies.

Adult female butterflies spend time searching for food plants required by the immature caterpillar stage. Most butterflies have specific host plants on which they develop. For example, caterpillars of the monarch butterfly develop only on milkweed, while the black swallowtail feeds only on parsley, dill and closely related plants. When females find the proper host plant, they may lay eggs on it.

Providing the necessary food plants for the developing caterpillars also allows production of a “native” population that can be observed in all stages of development. Most species, however, fly away as adult butterflies.

Food for adult butterflies usually consists of sweet liquids, such as nectar from flowers, that provide energy. Some flowers contain more nectar, and are more attractive to butterflies. Often, specific types of flowers and flower colors also are more attractive. Some species feed on honeydew (produced by aphids), plant sap, rotting fruit, and even bird dung.

When planning a garden, create a large patch of a flower species to attract and retain butterflies. Consider flowers that bloom in sequence. This is particularly important during summer when flower visiting by butterflies is most frequent.

Common Conflicts

Many of the most attractive nectar plants are commonly considered as “weeds” in other settings. Good examples are various thistles and dandelion, all highly attractive to several common butterflies. The well manicured and tended garden discourages some butterfly species that develop on wild types of plants.

A few butterflies also develop on certain garden crops and may be pests if the vegetable is considered more desirable than the insects. The European cabbage butterfly (on broccoli, cabbage and other mustards) and the black swallowtail (on parsley and dill) are common garden inhabitants.

Use insecticides sparingly because most are not compatible with attracting and increasing the number of butterflies in a yard. Most garden insecticides can kill the caterpillar stages of the insects. Adult butterflies also can be killed by resting on insecticide-treated surfaces.

Flowers and shrubs that are good choices for a butterfly garden:

  • Asters (Aster spp.)
  • Bee balm (Monarda)
  • Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)
  • Butterfly plant (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Bush cinquefolia (Potentilla fruticosa)
  • Cosmos (Cosmos spp.)
  • Gaillardia (Gaillardia spp.)
  • Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
  • Marigold (Tagetes spp.)
  • Ornamental thistles
  • Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus)
  • Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
  • Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)
  • Verbena (Verbena spp.)
  • Zinnias (Zinnia spp.)

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