Butterfly Gardening Basics

There are several levels of butterfly gardening depending on whether you want to just attract a few or provide a habitat inviting several varieties to move in lock, stock, and chrysalis. You can start by planting a few nectar plants or providing other lures to attract the butterflies in your area. You may find that you’re satisfied or that you’re so enchanted by your fluttering visitors that you want to do more.

Butterfly habitat necessities

Adult food sources
In the garden, these are most often plants that provide nectar for adult butterflies. Most butterflies aren’t very picky and will feed on a variety of flowering plants, though they may have a favorite or two. Fermenting fruit also makes a good food source.

Host plants
Plants that provide a site for the butterfly to lay eggs and a food source for the emerging caterpillar. Be prepared for heavy munching on host plants. Since highly preferred hosts may be unattractive or eaten until they have few leaves, mix in with other plants.

Shelter
Woody plants located near the nectar plants will provide butterflies with shelter during bad weather and at night.

Water
Butterflies can’t drink from open water. They prefer very wet sand or soil.

Planning a successful butterfly garden

Butterfly species
Determine which species live in your area and which ones you want to attract. Several walks around your neighborhood will help you determine which butterflies are in the area and what they’re feeding on.

Select a site
Choose a site for your butterfly garden that receives full sun, defined as six or more hours of direct sunlight daily. A little bit of late afternoon shade is fine, but most butterfly garden plants need bright sunlight.
If you’re adding plants to an existing bed, try to cluster butterfly-attracting plants together. This provides a variety of places for butterflies to feed. If you’re creating a new garden, select a spot that’s easy to see from a porch, deck, or window so you can enjoy the bright colors and antics of visiting butterflies.
Group plants together in clusters of three or other odd numbers. This looks more natural from a distance. Clustering flowers together by color, such as all red or orange blossoms together also forms a more cohesive look.
Avoid the use of broad-spectrum insecticides, especially Bacillus thuringensis (BT), or any insecticide that is applied broadly in the environment.

Decide on the type of garden
Select plants suited to the selected butterfly species and that will fit in with the type of garden you’d like to have whether it be formal or natural or somewhere in between. You can even have a butterfly rock garden. If you have an area that gradually slopes to the south, it’s an ideal spot for a butterfly rock garden. Include flat stones and low-growing butterfly plants, such as lantana, Stoke’s aster, and clover.

Adult food plants
Find out more about the native nectar plants that will attract the butterflies in your area. Butterflies are attracted by sweet-, pungent- and acrid-smelling flowers that are orange, yellow, pink, purple and red.

Other attractions
Sugaring* may be just the entree for your neighborhood butterflies or perhaps a nectar feeder. You might also consider providing a “puddle” or an area for basking. Some butterflies sip moisture and nutrients from moist soil. You can provide a puddle by allowing water to stand in a depression in your yard or by placing sand in a wide shallow container and keeping it moist. Puddles should be in an open area. Butterflies also bask in the sun to raise their body temperatures so they can fly. You can accommodate them by including some flat rocks in your garden. A few extra-large rocks provide more perching and sunning spots for butterflies.

Host plants
Find out more about the host plants that butterflies will lay eggs on and that will feed the caterpillars. Host plants aren’t just maternity wards. Many butterflies are more likely to frequent nectar plants that are near host plants and may feed on the host plants, too.

*Sugaring
Sugaring involves combining one can of beer, a pound of sugar, a half cup of dark molasses and some very ripe fruit in a blender and allowing the mixture to thicken to a spreadable consistency. After letting the tantalizing elixir ferment for about a day, you brush it onto tree trunks or posts or place it in a dish on a flat surface and then wait for the butterflies to arrive.

Butterfly Plants

Flowers

Aster
Bee balm
Black-Eyed Susan
Buddleia
Butterfly bush
Cannas
Catmint
Coreopsis
Daylily
False indigo
Gaillardia
Goldenrod
Guara
Hollyhock
Joe Pye Weed
Lantana

Lavender
Marigolds
Mexican Sage
Milkweed
Mint
Nasturtium
Pansy
Penta
Penstemmon
Phlox
Porterweed
Purple coneflower
Ruellia
Sage
Salvias
Sedum

Shasta daisy
Snapdragon
Sunflower
Sweet alyssum
Tickseed
Verbena
Zinnia

Herbs

Dill
Fennel
Parsley

Shrubs

Abelia
Calamint
Coontie
Fairy Magnolia
Firespike
Firebush
Forsythia
Ligustrum
Roses
Rose of Sharon
Senna Alata

Vines

Coral Honeysuckle
Cross vine
Passion Flowers
Pipevine
Trumpet creeper
Wyisteria

Trees

Chaste
Chickasaw Plum
Pawpaw
Sweet Bay
Willow

Butterfly Types