Butterfly Gardens

By the Plant Information Specialists

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Butterfly Gardens

You can attract butterflies and day flying moths to your garden by growing their favorite nectar-producing plants. Many nocturnal moths feed on the nectar of night-blooming, fragrant garden flowers. To encourage butterflies to reside throughout their life cycle, to mate and lay eggs, grow plants that will shelter their larvae as well as nectar plants to feed them. Then, you will host these wonderful creatures year-round, and reap the benefits of their flitting beauty and pollination activities from early spring until late autumn.

General Suggestions

Provide stands of fragrant flowering plants rather than single plants. Butterflies prefer flowers in full sun with shelter from the wind. They find hues of yellow and purple especially appealing. Plants of differing heights will attract the greatest variety of species. While some butterflies favor large flowers, others will prefer small. Provide flowers to butterfly visitors throughout the growing season. Butterflies will visit your garden if there is an abundance of nectar plants and certain specific larval host plants. As some species feed primarily on vegetables, you may need extra quantities of these food plants. Natural predators such as spiders, wasps, ants, flies, beetles, birds, and small animals work along with the weather to keep caterpillar populations in check. To assure continued generations of butterflies, do not use toxic pesticides.

Life Cycle of a Butterfly

A butterfly's life cycle includes four distinct stages: egg, caterpillar (larva), chrysalis (pupa), and adult. As gardeners, our greatest interest is the caterpillar or larval stage and the butterfly or adult stage. Since the larval stage is dominated with feeding and molting, be sure to have enough food source plants. When the fully mature caterpillar stops feeding it will search for a sheltered spot to pupate. Most chrysalises metamorphose within 10 to 14 days, although some will actually overwinter in the pupa stage. The adult butterfly will hatch in the morning to take advantage of a full day's sunlight. Courting and mating rituals are quite elaborate in some species with courtship "dances" of distinct steps that allow the same species to recognize each other and avoid crossbreeding. Within several hours of mating, the female will carefully scout for the proper food plant that will best nourish her young. Most butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of a food plant leaf, to protect them from sun and predators. Butterflies hibernate in all life stages with some overwintering as chrysalises, others as eggs, or caterpillars.

Encourage Diversity

Aim for diversity by including herbs, annuals and perennials; trees and shrubs, vines; native wildflowers, and food crops in the parsley and broccoli families. Be prepared to share some of your plants with hungry larvae. There must be sufficient numbers of food plants for caterpillars to foster an adequate population of butterflies.

Provide Nectar Sources

Many adult butterflies need flower nectar for energy. Good nectar plants include Aster, Asclepias (Milkweeds), and Buddleja (Butterfly Bush) as these offer nectar for most of the butterfly species. Non-flower sources of food for butterflies can include rotting fruit, tree sap, and animal droppings.

Feed The Caterpillars

Since many larvae prefer to feed on weedy plants, these can be located in remote areas of the property. The caterpillars of most butterflies are not considered true pests to many cultivated garden plants. Wild cherry leaves provide food for the Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars, while Viceroy caterpillars feed on willows. Of course, Monarch caterpillars prefer common weeds in the milkweed family. Since they only feed on particular plant groups, most butterfly larvae will not feed on your more valuable ornamental trees, shrubs and perennials.

Include Sunny Areas

Ample sunshine is necessary for butterflies to garner the energy needed for flying.

Further Suggestions

They will also need moisture and the nutrients that accumulate in rainwater. Often, they can be seen gathering in one spot at a mud puddle or along damp stream banks. Provide a water feature such as a fountain, birdbath, or mud puddle. Place a few flat stones around, to give them a place to bask in the sun so they can get warm.

Butterfly Conservation

As their habitat is increasingly fragmented and destroyed, we can play an important role in preservation of butterfly populations by creating the conditions necessary for their survival. Whatever we do to encourage butterflies will benefit other species as well.

Black Swallowtail Milkweed, Butterfly Bush, Purple Coneflower, Phlox, Dame's Rocket, Lilac, Azalea, Clover, Honeysuckle Rue, Hercules, Club, Carrots, Parsley, Dill Woodland edges, cultivated flower gardens
Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly Bush, Lilac, Milkweed, Honeysuckle, Bee Balm, Ironweed, Thistle, Phlox, Sweet Pepperbush Lilac, Cherry, Birch, Hornbeam, Ash, Willow, Spicebush Woodlands, cultivated flower gardens, along rivers
European Cabbage Butterfly Aster, Mustard, Lantana, Impatiens, Mint, Dandelion Mustard, Broccoli, Cabbage, Cleome, Nasturtium Open fields, woodlands and woodland edges, cultivated flower gardens
Monarch Milkweed, Aster, Goldenrod, Lilac, Joe-Pye Weed, Sedum, Blanketflower, Cosmos, Lantana, Zinnia, Butterfly Bush, Abelia, Mint Common Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed and other Milkweeds Open fields, grasslands, cultivated flower gardens
Great Spangled Fritillary Thistle, Purple Coneflower, Verbena, Butterfly Weed, Joe-Pye Weed, Black-eyed Susan, Ironweed, Mountain Laurel, Milkweed, Buttonbush, Lantana Violets Open woodlands, meadows, wetlands
Spring Azure Aster, Dogwood, Holly, Milkweed, Ceanothus, Spicebush, Lilac, Privet, Rock Cress, Cherry, Cotoneaster, Violet, Coreopsis Many trees and shrubs, Dogwood, Viburnum, Cherry, Sumac, Ceanothus Fields, bogs, woodlands, brushy areas
Clouded Sulphur Aster, Clover, Phlox, Goldenrod, Milkweed, Marigold, Scarlet Sage, Gayfeather, Sedum, Zinnia Many legumes, clover, alfalfa, vetch, trefoil Open areas, meadows, alfalfa fields
Viceroy Joe-Pye Weed, Goldenrod, Thistle, Milkweed, Phlox; Non-flower sources: rotting fruit, sap, animal droppings Willow, Poplar, Cherry, Apple Woodland edges, Streambanks, Meadows, Willow groves
Mourning Cloak Butterfly Bush, Ceanothus, Milkweed, Zinnia, Tree sap Willow, Birch, Hackberry, Elm Woodlands, Streambanks, suburban areas
Buckeye Aster, Coreopsis, Chickory, Milkweed, Buckwheat, Globe Thistle Mint, Snapdragon, Toadflax, Monkey Flower, Plantain Open fields, coastal areas, meadows, thin brush
Pearl Crescent Aster, Fleabane, Black-eyed Susan, Milkweed, Clover, Mint, Coreopsis, Zinnia Aster, Michaelmas Daisy Cultivated flower gardens, fields, meadows, roadsides
Painted Lady Aster, Buttonbush, Butterfly Bush, Bee Balm, Sedum, Anise Hyssop, Phlox, Goldenrod, Thistle, Joe-Pye Weed, Zinnia Many common weeds, Thistle, Mallow, Hollyhock, Sunflower Open woodlands, meadows cultivated flower gardens

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Generous support for the Home Gardening Center has been provided by Kenneth and Ellen Roman.