The flower doesn’t dream the bee. It blossoms and the bee comes.
– Mark Nepo
The 2nd of a two post series on pollinators. If you missed it, catch up here: Part 1, Make Your Garden A Bee Haven. Even though some of the plants and garden care are the same for butterflies and bees, I feel it’s important to consider their specific needs. Updated 6/23
For me, a garden is an integral part of the home providing a place to refresh your soul and connect to nature. Seeing beautiful butterflies stopping on flowers, and then flitting away, brings me great joy.
Planting a butterfly garden is a great way to beautify your yard and help attract many of the different butterflies found in your community. It’s one of the most popular hobbies today. Most butterfly gardens are also a magnet for hummingbirds, bees, and other beneficial insects, the pollinators. Also a productive butterfly garden does not require a large land area—even a few key plants can make a huge impact.
Whether confined to a patio container or sprawled over several acres, a butterfly garden can be as simple or as complex as you wish to make it. The same basic concepts apply, regardless of the size. The most important thing to understand is that different butterfly species have different requirements, and these requirements change throughout their life cycles. Know your goals before choosing plants for your garden. Do you just want a few butterflies to stop in your garden? Would you like to specialize in one butterfly, such as a Monarch? Do you want to assist the reproduction of butterflies?
First do some research. Since butterflies are insects, insecticides will kill them. Learn more natural, organic garden pest control.
Second look for plants that are native to your area. The native species are the ones that are genetically ready to deal with natural predators in your garden. Native plants make beautiful, functional and environmentally smart additions to any type of garden. Find the plants appropriate to your area and a draw for butterflies. You’ll notice that some plants draw several kinds of butterflies. Planting species foreign to your area does not give butterflies plants for their eggs. They may take the nectar but do not lay eggs on them.
An example locally here in Florida, when I first wanted more plantings for butterflies three years ago, I was warned by multiple master gardeners to not plant the Mexican Petunia. Popular in central Florida, The State of Florida terms them “highly invasive”. They have not been banned but should be. They look like a purple petunia flower, are hardy in zones 8 – 11, but they can take over woodlands and edges of ponds and lakes.
Third, a well-planned butterfly garden can appeal to many different butterflies. It also can cater to both the adults and their larvae (caterpillars). Know what you want before you design. Proper garden design and choice of plants are essential. Such decisions will help influence which butterflies are attracted, remain in the area, and reproduce there. If you want your garden filled with growing butterflies, you have to be willing for some plants to be eaten. Caterpillars only grow into butterflies when they have a food source. Raising Butterflies is an excellent site with information on butterflies in general and details on specific butterflies. You should also check out NABA Butterfly Garden for specific information on butterfly gardens.
There are more than 765 species of butterflies found in North America north of Mexico. All butterflies have a life cycle consisting of four distinct stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult. Female butterflies lay their eggs on or near an appropriate larval host plant. The eggs typically hatch within a few days and the small larvae begin to feed. Butterfly larvae have enormous appetites and grow rapidly. To accommodate the change in proportions, each larva will molt or shed its skin several times. The appearance of the larva may change after each molt. When fully grown, the larva seeks a sheltered place. It typically attaches itself with silk to a leaf or twig and it molts for the last time into the pupa. During this stage, the once worm-like caterpillar transforms into a winged adult.
Fourth All insects are cold-blooded and cannot internally regulate their body temperature. Butterflies will readily bask in the sun when it is warm out, but few are seen on cloudy days. It is a good idea to leave open areas in a yard for butterflies to sun themselves, as well as partly shady areas like trees or shrubs, so they can hide when it’s cloudy or cool off if it is very hot. This will also provide shelter during high winds.
Fifth Butterflies also like puddles. Males of several species congregate at small rain pools, forming puddle clubs. Permanent puddles are very easy to make by burying a bucket to the rim, filling it with gravel or sand, and then pouring in liquids such as stale beer, sweet drinks or water. Overripe fruit, allowed to sit for a few days is a very attractive substance to them as well. Use a bird bath or a raised clay saucer to raise the fruit off the ground.
A Special Note on Monarchs
Several years ago I attended a class on butterfly gardening. Next to me was a fascinating lady who “raises” Monarch butterflies in her yard. Every year she adds more milkweed so that the numerous caterpillars have plenty of food. The Monarch butterfly can feed on most flowers, but it is drawn to milkweed nectar and will only lay its eggs on milkweed plants. The caterpillars eat milkweed and the toxins from the plant are stored in its body. Monarchs may be the most widely recognized of all American butterflies. Its distinct orange, black, and white wings send a warning to predators that the monarch is foul-tasting and poisonous. This is due to the milkweed toxins. Found throughout the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, the monarch migrates like birds making an astonishing 3000 mile journey in the fall to winter sanctuaries in Mexico or southern California. Monarchs numbers greatly diminished in the last 20 years due to loss of habitat, pesticides and weed killers. According to the Monarch Watch, in 1996 the overwintering colonies in Mexico was 18.19 hectares (hectare = 2.47 acres) and the area of wintering colonies in 2016-17 was 2.91 hectares. If you want to help Monarchs, plant milkweeds in your yard and do not use insecticides or weed killers.
Some of the Best Perennials For Butterflies
North American Butterfly Association has a chart of North American plants that they recommend for butterflies here. They also have a regional chart, NABA’s regional garden guides, to learn which plants are best suited for regional butterfly gardens and which butterflies are attracted. You click on the yellow dot closest to you on the map, and you will see a list of plants native to your area. In my zone 9B, the list includes the red penta which I have in my yard. Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds love it! (Get the red penta as other colors like purple do not attract butterflies in my experience.) From this chart, you can determine what butterflies are in your area and what plants attract them.
Gaillardias, also known as blanket flowers are easy-to-grow, sun-loving, first-year flowering perennials. Gaillardias offer you an exceptionally long season of color in the garden or in containers. (some are hardy zones 3 to 9, others 5 to 9).
Monarda or bee balm plants (hardy zones 3 to 9): Bee balm is a wonderful plant for attracting butterflies and helpful bees. This prairie native has fascinating-shape flowers in jewel tones of red, pink, purple, and white, surrounded by dark bracts. They grow atop substantial clumps of dark foliage.
There’s at least one Sedum species for every growing zone in the US. Better Homes & Gardens has an excellent post on The Top 17 Sedums. Many Sedum varieties and species attract huge numbers of butterflies from mid July to the end of August as they flower in succession.
Eupatorium or Joe Pye Weed is a great addition for any wildlife lover. Native to the eastern half of North America and hardy in zones 3 or 4 to 9 depending on the variety. It’s a tall prairie plant that attracts butterflies with its late summer flowers. Gardening Know How has a great article on Joe Pye Weed which gives information on its care.
Solidago, commonly called goldenrod, is a genus of about 100 to 120 species of flowering plants in the aster family, Asteraceae. Most are herbaceous perennial species found in open areas such as meadows, prairies, and savannas and hardy in zones 3 to 8 (check for specific plant you are buying).
Butterfly Nectar Preferences and Larval Food Plants
The butterfly names below are links that will take you to a photo of the butterfly and is followed by native region for the butterfly. Below the name are 2 lines: First line has the plants needed for the butterfly to lay eggs. Second line has the plants preferred for nectar for an adult butterfly. This list is by no means complete but has some of the most common butterflies.
The list can be downloaded in PDF form.
American Painted Lady, throughout N America
- Larval food plant: everlasting, daisy, burdock
- Nectar: aster, dogbane, goldenrod, mallow, privet, vetch
American Snout North and South America
- Larval food plant: Hackberry
- Nectar: Aster, Dogbane, Dogwood, Goldenrod, Pepperbush
Anise Swallowtail Rocky Mountains west to California
- Larval food plant: Queen Anne’s Lace
- Nectar: Buddleia, Joe Pye Weed
Baltimore Checkerspot Northeast U.S.
- Larval food plant: Turtlehead, False Foxglove, Plantain
- Nectar: Milkweed, Viburnum, Wild Rose
Black Swallowtail throughout much of N America
- Larval food plant: parsley, dill, fennel
- Nectar: aster, alfalfa, Joe Pye weed, buddleia
Buckeye Butterfly southern Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia and all parts of the United States except the northwest
- Larval food plant:snapdragon
- Nectar: aster, milkweed chicory, coreopsis
Clouded Sulphur Most of N. America
- Larval food plant: Clover
- Nectar plant: Goldenrod, Grape Hyacinth, Marigold
Clouded Skipper Georgia south thru Mexico, Central American to northern S America
- Larval food plant: grasses
- Nectar plant: pink, purple, or white flowers including shepherd’s needle, selfheal, vervain, buttonbush, and lantana.
Comma Eastern U. S.
- Larval food plant: nettle, elm, hops
- Nectar: rotting fruit & sap, butterfly bush, dandelion
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail eastern U. S.
- Larval food plant: mostly trees, such as cottonwood, ash, birch, wild black cherry, tulip tree, sweet bay (magnolia), and willow.
- Nectar: honeysuckle, milkweeds, azaleas, thistles and other urban flowers.
Giant Swallowtail eastern U.S. south to Mexico
- Larval food plant: citrus trees
- Nectar: Joe Pye weed, buddleia
Great Swallowtail throughout N America
- Larval food plant: citrus trees, prickly ash
- Nectar: lantana, Japanese honeysuckle, milkweed, lilac, goldenrod, azalea
Great Spangled Fritillary from Alberta, Canada down to California, Arkansas, northern Georgia
- Larval food plant: violet
- Nectar: ironweed, milkweed, black-eyed Susan, verbena
Greater Fritillary North West U. S. across country to North East U. S.
- Larval food plant: violet
- Nectar: Joe Pye weed
Gulf Fritillary Throughout extreme southern portions of US
- Larval food plant: pentas, passion-vine
- Nectar: Joe Pye weed
Monarch Throughout N. America
- Larval food plant: milkweed, Can be grown as a perennial in USDA zones 8 and up. Grow as an annual or overwinter in colder zones.
- Nectar: milkweed, butterfly bush, goldenrod, thistle, ironweed, dogbane, mints
Mourning Cloak Eurasia and N. America
- Larval food plant: willow, elm, poplar, aspen, birch, hackberry
- Nectar: rotting fruit & sap, butterfly bush, milkweed, Shasta daisy
Orange Sulphur Southern Canada to Central Mexico
- Larval food plant: Vetch. Alfalfa, Clover
- Nectar: Alfalfa, Aster, Clover, Verbena
Painted Lady Found on almost all continents
- Larval food plant: daisy, hollyhock
- Nectar: goldenrod, aster, zinnia, butterfly bush, milkweed
Red Admiral From Central Canada south to Mexican highlands
- Larval food plant: nettle
- Nectar: rotting fruit and sap, daisy, aster, goldenrod, butterfly bush,
Silvery Checkerspot Southern Canada south to Georgia and Texas
- Larval food plant: sunflower
- Nectar: cosmos, blanket flower, marigold, phlox, zinnia
Spicebush Swallowtail Southern Canada south thru Eastern US to Fl. west to Texas & Oklahoma
- Larval food plant: spicebush, sassafras
- Nectar: dogbane, Joe Pye weed, buddleia
Spring Azure From S Canada & Alaska south thru most of U. S. except Texas coast and Florida
- Larval food plant: dogwood, viburnum, apple, blueberry, spirea
- Nectar: dogwood, cherry, blackberry, Forget-me-not, holly
Tawny Emperor From Canada to Northern Mexico
- Larval food plant: hackberry
- Nectar: rotting fruit, tree sap, dung, carrion
Variegated Fritillary N. and S. America
- Larval food plant: violet, passion vine
- Nectar: Joe Pye Weed
Viceroy Canada south to Mexico
- Larval food plant: willow, poplar, fruit trees i.e. apple
- Nectar: rotting fruit, sap, aster, goldenrod, milkweed, thistle
Western Tailed Blue Western N. America
- Larval food plant: clover, peas
- Nectar: legumes
White Admiral Eastern U. S.
- Larval food plant: birch, willow, poplar, honeysuckle
- Nectar: aphid honeydew, bramble blossom
Zabulon Skipper Wisconsin east and south to Ga., Texas, and Panama
- Larval food plant: purpletop grass
- Nectar: blackberry, vetch, milkweed, buttonbush, thistle
Zebra Longwing S. America north through West Indies, and Mexico to S. Texas and Florida
- Larval food plant: passion-vine
- Nectar: verbena, lantana, shepard’s needle
Zebra Swallowtail Eastern U. S. and S. E. Canada
- Larval food plant: pawpaw
- Nectar: dogbane, Joe Pye weed, buddleia, privet, blueberry
Wishing you a beautiful summer garden filled with winged beauties.
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Photos courtesy of Pixabay.com
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