Monday, August 03, 2009

Creating a Butterfly Garden

Butterflies are on the wing! They grace our days with a rare and evanescent beauty. And yet, for all their amusing fluttering and richness of color, they have unfortunately met with much the same treatment as many of the other beneficial organisms in our environment. Their habitat has declined significantly due to the persistent impact of overdevelopment and urban sprawl. Moreover, their very existence is continually threatened by chemical-intensive efforts to eliminate agricultural, lawn, and garden pests.

Some years back, Ron Boender, manager of Butterfly World in Florida, commented that "butterflies are the most sensitive barometer of the entire environment." Their presence around our homes and gardens indicates a vital, healthy ecosystem; their absence, a serious decline in that system's overall health. Another colleague, Frank Elia at the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center at Callaway Gardens in Georgia, remarked on the irony that while perennial beds and borders are gaining in popularity nationwide -- and would make for fantastic butterfly gardens -- that possibility is frequently ruled out due to the general and rampant use of pesticides in those garden beds.

Why develop a butterfly garden? Beyond the beauty and life that these near-magical creatures bring to our gardens and homes, a butterfly garden provides a biological ark: a unique habitat which aids in the preservation of these often endangered insects. And the butterfly garden becomes a unique habitat for gardeners as well, teaching all of us to live without pesticides, to accept some losses to hungry caterpillars, and to fit in with a natural, evolving system.

Planning and Planting Your Garden

It is important to remember that anyone, anywhere can become a butterfly gardener. The size of your garden is not important -- some gardeners even use window boxes -- and you needn't tear up an established garden -- many successful butterfly gardeners began by incorporating favorite nectar and food sources into existing beds. However, there are a number of important details to consider before beginning.

Location, Location, Location

Ideally, your butterfly garden should be in a sunny area with at least five to six hours full sun. Both the insects and their favorite plants are sun lovers. Also, to help butterflies fly through the garden, land, and take-off, it is recommended that the area be somewhat sheltered from the wind by a wall, hedge, or trees.


Although they can "drink" from moist, wet soils, butterflies cannot obtain moisture from open water. Mud puddles or damp sand should be placed in the garden. Try digging a small pit or trench, lining it with plastic, and then filling it with wet sand.

Sunning Areas

Butterflies need areas to perch and spread their wings, allowing sunlight to warm them and raise their body temperature. Chilled butterflies are sluggish and otherwise inactive. Sunning areas can be created by placing flat rocks throughout your garden, keeping old fenceposts clear, or clearing an area of vegetation with wood chips or other mulch.

Selecting Plants for the Garden

Butterflies are very specific in their plant interests. Some plants are favored for depositing eggs -- these then become the "host" plants or food sources for developing larvae or caterpillars. Other plants are prized for their nectar. Sometimes these plants play both roles, though generally host plants only appeal to female butterflies. Also, some butterflies will frequent a wide variety of nectar-rich flowers and host plants, while others will patronize only one single species. The following plant list highlights those genera and species with the widest possible appeal.

When selecting plants for your butterfly garden consider the following: (1) Which butterflies are already in your area? Which would you like to attract? What are their favorite host and nectar plants? Any decent butterfly reference book can help you to identify butterflies and suitable plants. (2) The plant's adaptability to your climate. Most full service garden centers can help you make selections from the following list. (3) General growth habit and appearance. Will the plants you select fit into your current planting design? You may already have many of the plants you need on hand. Some rearranging and interplanting could quickly help you establish a wonderful butterfly oasis with little additional cost and labor. Also, remember to include several varieties of both host and nectar plants in your garden to attract the greatest number and variety of butterflies. Host plants attract female butterflies, provide egg-laying sites, provide food for larvae, and ensure a continued butterfly population in your area.

Nectar-producing plants attract both males and females and provide food for them. When selecting nectar sources, pay special attention to large, single, and upright blooms; they provide better "landing pads" and facilitate nectar extraction. Also, plan for a diversity of colors since butterflies are especially attracted to bright, vibrant colors and striking contrast: bold and brash is often the recipe for success. Lastly, establish year-round color with succession plantings to provide bloom throughout the year: it is both an advantage for yourself as a viewer -- and as a lure for a wider range of butterflies, which have distinct life spans and peak periods of activity.

Dietary Supplements

Many experienced butterfly gardeners increase "visitation" through supplemental feeding sources. These include manures and rotting fruit, which attract a wide variety of butterfly, as well as "home-brews," which are normally low, flat dishes filled with sugar-water, or sugar-enriched beer or wine. Perhaps you can include butterflies in your taste-testing of microbrewery beers!

Pest Control

Most pesticides are harmful either to adult butterflies, caterpillars, eggs, or pupae. Use manual control of pests in conjunction with biological controls and some insecticidal soaps. Remember, too, that healthy soils produce healthy plants: the healthier your plant, the less likely it will encounter stress, disease, and pests.

Plants for Attracting Butterflies

The following lists commonly available plants by their botanical name with common name in parentheses. Please note that many species (indicated by spp.) within a given genus are excellent nectar or food sources. and some plants cited serve as both food plants and nectar sources. Plants followed by the symbol *** attract the largest number of butterflies.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

Host Plants:

Alcea spp. (Hollyhock)
Anethum graveolens (Dill)***
Antirrhinum spp. (Snapdragon)
Arabis spp. (Rock Cress)***
Asclepias spp. (Milkweed)***
Barbarea spp. (Winter Cress)***
Cassia spp. (Senna)
Celtis spp. (Hackberry)
Daucus carota (Queen-Anne's-Lace)***
Foeniculum vulgare (Fennel)***
Humulus spp. (Hops)
Lathyrus odoratus (Sweet pea)
Lindera benzoin (Spicebush)
Liriodendron tulipifera (Tulip Poplar)
Lupinus spp. (Lupine)
Malus spp. (Apple)
Passiflora spp. (Passionflower)***
Petroselinum crispum (Parsley)
Phaseolus spp. (Bean)
Prunus spp. (Cherry/Plum)***
Ruta graveolens (Rue)***
Salix spp. (Willow)***
Urtica spp. (Nettle)***
Vicia spp. (Vetch)***
Viola spp. (Violet)

Nectar Sources:

Achillea millefolium (Common Yarrow)
Alcea spp. (Hollyhock)***
Allium spp.
Anaphalis spp. (Everlasting)
Apocynum spp. (Dogbane)***
Artemisia spp. (Wormwood)***
Asclepias spp. (Milkweed)***
Aster spp. ***
Barbarea spp. (Winter Cress)***
Buddleia spp. (Butterfly bush)***
Chrysanthemum spp. ***
Cirsium spp. (Thistle)***
Cleome spp. (Spider plant)
Coreopsis spp. (Tickseed)***
Cosmos spp. ***
Delphinium elatum
Dianthus barbatus (Sweet William)
Echinacea spp. (Purple Coneflower)***
Eupatorium spp.
Fragaria virginiana (Virginia Strawberry)
Heliotropium spp. (Heliotrope)***
Hemerocallis spp. (Daylily)
Iberis sempervirens (Edging Candytuft)
Ipomoea spp. (Morning-glory)
Lantana spp. (Shrub Verbena)***
Lavandula angustifolia (English Lavender)
Ligustrum spp. (Privet)***
Lonicera spp. (Honeysuckle)***
Lunaria annua (Money Plant)
Mentha spp. (Mint)
Myosotis scorpioides (Forget-me-not)
Nicotiana alata (Flowering Tobacco)
Phlox spp.
Primula vulgaris (English Primrose)
Rhododendron spp. ***
Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary)
Rubus spp. (Bramble fruits)
Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan)
Ruellia spp.
Salvia spp. (Sage)***
Sedum spp.
Solidago spp. (Goldenrod)***
Tagetes spp. (Marigold)***
Taraxacum spp. (Dandelion)***
Thymus spp. (Thyme)
Trifolium pratense (Red Clover)***
Tropaeolum majus (Garden Nasturtium)
Viola spp. (Violet)
Zinnia spp. ***

Helpful References:
  • Schneck, Marcus. Butterflies. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1990.
  • Butterfly Gardening - Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden, Xerces Society with Smithsonian Inst., 1990.
  • Tekulsky, Mathew. The Butterfly Garden. Boston: Harvard Common Press, 1985.
  • Sedenko, Jerry. The Butterfly Garden. New York: Villard Books, 1991.

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