Butterfly Gardening

Monarch butterfly on zinnia flower

Monarch butterfly on zinnia flower

Butterflies are delightful living jewels that beautify any garden.  With a little planning, you can create a garden that welcomes butterflies in all their life stages for enjoyment throughout the summer.

(To find a larger list of butterfly plants, try our PlantFinder's Advanced Search, select plant type and set "Wildlife Attraction" to "Butterflies".)

Host Plants

Planting flowers that supply adult butterflies with nectar will attract some butterflies to your garden, but to attract and keep many different species to enjoy you’ll have to include host plants also.  What are host plants? They are the plants that female butterflies lay their eggs on the hatch into caterpillars.  Each species of butterfly has specific plant or plants that nourish the growing caterpillar and they cannot survive on any other plant.  Your host plants will be eaten by the caterpillars, so remember not to worry about holes on the leaves-and no pesticides unless absolutely unavoidable (see below). 

There are many host plants already in or near your landscape if you live near natural areas like woods or meadows.  Several commonly planted ornamental plants are also host plants and may already be in your garden.

Annual & Perennial Butterfly Host Plants

African Marigold (Tagetes erecta)
Alfalfa, Clover
Asters (various)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)
Cabbage, Kale (Brassica sp.)
Citrus (various)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
French Marigold (Tagetes patula)
Hollyhock (Alcea spp.)

Lupine (Lupinus spp.)
Parsley (Petroselenium crispum)
Passionflower (Passiflora sp.)
Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota)
Rock Cress (Arabis spp.)
Sedum spectabile
Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
Snapdragon (Antirrhinum spp.)
Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)
Violets (Viola spp.)

Tree and Shrub Butterfly Host Plants

Birch (Betula spp.)
Black willow (Salix nigra)
Boxelder (Acer negundo)
Elm (Ulmus spp.)
Hawthorn (Cratagus spp.)
Oak (Quercus spp.)

PawPaw (Asimina triloba)
Poplar (Populus spp.)
Spicebush (Lindea benzoin)
Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina)

Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus Feeding Down 3008px
Monarch butterfly caterpillar
© Derek Ramsey / derekramsey.com / Used with permission

Butterfly Nectar Plants

Adult butterflies drink nectar from flowers, and having a selection of nectar plants that bloom in succession throughout the season will bring butterflies to your garden.  Annuals tend to have longer bloom times than perennials.  Look for “old fashioned” varieties and single flowers instead of double flowered forms.  Look in the seed section for plants suitable for butterflies.  Butterflies prefer mass plantings of a variety to single plants, and also favor purple, lavender & pink flowers (but other colors will attract butterflies also).  You’ll see that some plants are both host plants and nectar plants, so plant plenty of those!

Annual and Perennial Butterfly Nectar Plants

Achillea (Achillea millefolium)
African Marigold (Tagetes erecta)
Aster (Aster spp.)
Bee Balm (Monarda spp.)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)
Blanketflower (Gaillardia x grandiflora)
Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.)
French Marigold  (Tagetes patula)
Gayfeather/Blazing Star (Litaris spp.)
Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro)
Gloriosa Daisy (Rudbeckia hirta)

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum)
Lupine (Lupinus spp.)
Mallow (Alcea spp.)
Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
Mints (Mentha spp.)
Mountain Bluet (Centaurea montana)
Nasturtium (Tropaeoleum majus)
Oxeye Daisy (Heliopsis helianthoides)


Tree and Shrub Butterfly Nectar Plants

Black Willow (Salix nigra)
Coralberry (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus)
Korean Lilac (Syringa meyeri,  S. patula)
Mock Orange (Philadelphus coronarius)
Plum, Cherry (Prunus spp.)
Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)

Sweet Pepperbush (Clethera alnifolia)
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia spp.)
Bluebeard (Caryopteris clandonensis)
Tropical Hibiscus (Hibiscus roseo-sinensis)
Azalea (Rhododendron spp.)


Other ways to attract butterflies

  • Protect your butterfly garden from strong wind by creating it near a wall, fence or other windbreak.
  • Provide a patch or pot of damp sand. Butterflies cannot drink from open water like birdbaths but can drink from very shallow puddles or damp areas.
  • Provide basking stones. Butterflies are cold-blooded and need the sun’s rays to warm up enough to fly on cool mornings.
  • Leave some areas of your property “natural” if possible to provide wild host and nectar plants a place to grow.
  • Make a butterfly feeder (a fun kid’s project): Drill a small hole in the lid of a small jar. Plug the hole with cotton. Fill the jar with a solution of one part table sugar (not honey) to nine parts water. Decorate the lid with colorful “petals” and hang in a tree near your butterfly garden.

Controlling Insect Pests in your Butterfly Garden

Lacebug on Azalea

Lacebug on Azalea

Wherever possible, avoid using pesticides in your butterfly garden.  If other insects become a problem you must deal with, treat only the areas affected with insecticidal soaps or oils. These will harm caterpillars if they are sprayed directly, so be precise.  Often, there are insects such as spiders, lacewings, ladybird beetles, and ground beetles that actually help to control unwanted pests, especially if you avoid using pesticides.

About Butterfly Houses...

Occasionally, a butterfly may take refuge in your butterfly house, but most will prefer to hide in natural areas, under loose tree bark, in tall unmowed grass and undisturbed brush piles.  Enjoy your butterfly house as a garden ornament, but don’t be disappointed if butterflies don’t take up residence.