What’s a garden without a few bugs?! Especially when they’re as beautiful as the fluttering insects in the scientific class Rhopalocera, better known, of course, as butterflies. Wherever you live, your area will almost certainly be home to a number of native butterfly species, many of whose numbers are in decline. So why not help them out a little and enjoy their wonderful colors and shapes at the same time by growing plants that attract butterflies?
Why should I grow plants that attract butterflies?
The visual aspect aside, there are a few very good reasons to want to plant some butterfly favorites in your garden. Here are a few of the main ones that convinced me to make my back yard vegetable garden a bit more hospitable for them:
- Many butterfly species are endangered or vulnerable and could use a little help.
- Butterflies are an important part of the food chain. For example, numerous bird species use caterpillars as food for their young. Having butterflies will also attract birds to your garden.
- Butterflies are important pollinators.
- They’re just fascinating! I love watching their behavior in the garden. If you have young kids, showing them the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly in your own back yard is a great opportunity to teach them about nature.
Butterfly gardens for small spaces
Don’t think that just because you don’t have a large garden, you won’t have space for edible plants that attract butterflies. Before I list some decorative species that are beloved among butterflies below, let me share a little “gardening hack” with you. There is actually a way to have it all!
An edible garden which will attract loads of butterflies can be grown in pots, making it the perfect option if you only have a balcony or deck to work with. In fact, you can even do this if you only have some window boxes. The secret? Herbs.
Growing your own herb garden isn’t just a fantastic option to elevate your cooking, but many of the species we like to use in our kitchen are also huge favorites among insects. They’ll attract different species of butterflies, but also bees, bumblebees and even hummingbirds, if those are native to your area.
You can find 8 examples of fantastic herbs to try, all of which flower, in the post on growing a herbal tea garden. For the purpose of attracting butterflies, my own personal choices would be:
- Lavender (Lavandula sp.)
- Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
- Pretty much everything in the mint family: Mint (Mentha sp.), bee balm (Monarda sp.), catnip (Nepeta cataria) and more
- Coneflower (Echinacea sp.)
Don’t let those limit you, though. Just plant your own favorite herbs, because luckily for us, butterflies appreciate almost all of the common species.
** Pro Tip: The trick to sharing your herb garden with butterflies and other beneficial bugs is to keep the majority of plants neat and tidy for yourself, but reserve some for the insects. After all, letting herbs go to bloom can impact their flavor negatively (with the exception of species like lavender). Just don’t remove all flowers: let some of your herbs grow as wild as they want and butterflies will find their way to them.
What else will attract butterflies to a garden?
Yep, keep in mind it’s not just flowers and edible host plants for their caterpillars that will attract butterflies to your garden. There are also other things you can do to make it hospitable. Some of the different ways to make your garden a comfy place for these bugs to stop by are:
- Avoid pesticides! That includes making sure any new plants you buy haven’t been treated.
- Install or DIY a butterfly house. These are made of wood and have small slits that larger creatures don’t fit through, giving butterflies a safe place to hide and wait out storms.
- Make a butterfly watering station using a shallow pan (an old frying pan works great) filled with sand that you keep moist. You could even include a mineral block for them.
- If you have fruit trees, leave some of the overripe fruit on there if it doesn’t attract too many wasps. Cut and place anything from the fruit bowl that is too far gone in a sunny spot. Species like the red admiral love it.
Common types of garden butterflies
Obviously, the types of buttterflies you’ll end up attracting to your garden vary by location. Assuming you live in the USA, though, some of the common ones you may spot include the following. The list is by no means limited to the below, however, as there are loads of different species that may pop up, especially in more rural areas.
- Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta): Occurs everywhere in the USA and many other parts of the world!
- Eastern & western tiger swallowtail (Papilio sp.): Such a joy to see, their colors and patterns are amazing.
- Cabbage white (Pieris rapae): This invasive species is more of a pest, but it’s still quite pretty.
- Painted lady (Vanessa cardui): One of the most widespread butterflies in the world.
- Mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa): One of the earliest to wake up in spring. They like various tree species.
- Spring azure (Celastrina ladon): Very small, but they’re difficult to overlook due to their bright blue wings.
Popular flowers for attracting butterflies
When choosing flowers to attract butterflies to your garden, keep in mind that these winged insects don’t just come for the nectar. They also need tasty foliage for their young to feed on! Some plants don’t produce flowers that butterflies like, but offer leaves that are ideal for caterpillars to consume in order to grow into healthy adults.
For example, European peacock caterpillars actually munch exclusively on nettle leaves. Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars adore carrot and fennel leaves.
Here are 9 popular flowers that attract these beautiful winged creatures:
- Milkweed (Asclepias sp.): Butterflies + caterpillars. Milkweeds are the host species for monarch butterflies. This is probably America’s favorite butterfly species of all, but also one in decline. A 2018 study showed female monarchs prefer the purple-blooming swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), which occurs in all but the westernmost states, Arizona and Mississipi. If you are from these states, you could always consider a milkweed variety native to your area
- Aster (Aster sp.): Butterflies + caterpillars. This is a great flower to grow in your garden because it blooms quite late, giving you a last boost of color to enjoy and butterflies some important autumn nutrients. There are plenty of species out there native to the USA, so have a look which works best for your area.
- Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot (Daucus carota): Butterflies + caterpillars. As mentioned, swallowtail caterpillars love carrots, but letting your edible carrots go to flower is not ideal. It means the roots have bolted and won’t taste nice anymore. Wild carrots are the solution! You won’t be eating their roots anyway, so both you and your local butterflies can enjoy the lacey white flowers. Caterpillars can munch away on the leaves.
- Sunflower (Helianthus sp.): Butterflies + caterpillars. A big favorite among thistle butterfly caterpillars (painted lady), though unfortunately also the host plant for sunflower moths. The flowers are full of juicy nectar. And remember, there is more out there than just the common sunflower! Why not try the dark red ‘Chocolate’ cultivar, or go for a dwarf variety for small spaces like balconies?
- Daisy (Leucanthemum sp.): Butterflies. Try oxeye daisies, Shasta daisies, or any of your other favorites. Many are perfect to grow in pots, and they’ll attract a range of different butterfly species depending on where you live.
- Goldenrod (Solidago sp.): Butterflies (though also many small moth caterpillars). A huge champion among flowers that attract butterflies, most species are North American natives. The lovely yellow flowers will bring monarch butterflies, among many others, to your garden. (Bumble)bees and many, many other insects will also flock to it. A real powerhouse!
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta): Butterflies. If you think this species looks similar to Asters, sunflowers and daisies, you’re right. They’re all members of the large Asteraceae family, which features heavily on this list because butterflies just adore them!
- Stonecrop (Sedum sp.): Butterflies + caterpillars. A perfect option for dryer regions where you can’t water your garden as much and need to go xeric, this succulent flowers beautifully. It hosts Parnassius butterfly caterpillars and feeds a nice variety of adult butterfly species.
- Thistle (Cirsium sp.): Butterflies + caterpillars. Although they’re not very commonly grown as ornamental flowers, thistles are actually very important host and nectar plants for some butterfly species, like the common painted lady. And they do actually have beautiful flowers that would do great in a little wildflower section in your garden! Many species are native and bloom purple, pink or cream.
I’d also like to mention that it’s always a great idea to look up endangered butterflies and see if any are native to your area. Who knows, if you find out and plant their specific host plants, you may be able to make a small difference!
Did you know? Your first thought when it comes to flowers that attract butterflies may be to go for a butterfly bush. The common name kind of says it all: the genus Buddleja is extremely popular among our winged friends. Its purple flowers are very decorative and smell nice, but there’s one problem. The plant is extremely invasive and actually illegal in some states now. Grow with care!
Frequently asked questions
Not very long: some live as little as 2 weeks, though others can make it to just under a year. This is why it’s important to also provide host plants for caterpillars. That way your garden butterflies can reproduce and you can enjoy them throughout the season.
Butterflies are always looking for sources of salt and minerals. That’s why I mentioned making a butterfly watering station with sand: they naturally tend to drink in muddy areas for this reason. If a butterfly lands on you, it’s probably attracted to the salts in your sweaT!
Pocius, V. M., Debinski, D. M., Pleasants, J. M., Bidne, K. G., & Hellmich, R. L. (2018). Monarch butterflies do not place all of their eggs in one basket: oviposition on nine Midwestern milkweed species. Ecosphere, 9(1), e02064.