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Butterfly Gardens: Home

A buckeye butterfly alights on garlic chive flowers at NYBG; photo by Marlon Co
Buckeye butterfly alights on garlic chive flowers at NYBG; photo by Marlon Co

 

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.

Tips for Growing a Butterfly Garden

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 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 by 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, shrubs and 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 and asclepias (milkweeds), 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 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.

Monarch visits Symphyothrichum (blue aster) in the Native Plants Garden; photo by Marlon Co
Monarch visits Symphyothrichum (blue aster) a nectar source  in the Native Plants Garden; photo by Marlon Co

Ideas for Butterfly Friendly Flowers and Plants

Butterfly

Nectar Source

Larval Host

Butterfly Habitat

Black swallowtail
azalea, butterfly bush*, clover, coneflower, dame's rocket, honeysuckle, phlox, milkweed, lilac
carrots, dill, parsley, fennel, rue
cultivated flower gardens, woodland edges
Tiger swallowtail
bee balm, butterfly bush*, honeysuckle, ironweed, lilac, milkweed, phlox, sweet pepperbush, thistle
ash, birch, cherry, hornbeam, lilac, spicebush, willow
along rivers, cultivated flower gardens, woodlands
European cabbage
broccoli, cabbage, cleome, mustard, nasturtium
carrots, dill, parsley, fennel, rue
cultivated flower gardens, open fields, woodlands and woodland edges
Monarch
abelia, aster, blanketflower, butterfly weed, buttonbush, cosmos, goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, lantana, lilac, milkweed, mint, sedum, zinnia
common milkweed, swamp milkweed and other milkweeds
cultivated flower gardens, grasslands, open fields
Great spangled fritillary
black-eyed Susan, butterfly weed, buttonbush, ironweed, Joe-Pye weed, lantana, milkweed, mountain laurel, purple coneflower, thistle, verbena
violets
meadows, open woodlands, wetlands
Spring azure
aster, ceanothus, cherry, coreopsis, cotoneaster, dogwood, holly, lilac, milkweed, privet, rock cress, spicebush, violet
many trees and shrubs, cherry, dogwood, ceanothus, sumac, viburnum
brushy areas, bogs, fields, woodlands
Clouded sulpher
aster, clover, gayfeather, goldenrod, marigold, milkweed, zinnia, phlox, scarlet sage, sedum
alfalfa, clover, many legumes, trefoil, vetch
alfalfa fields, meadows, open areas
Viceroy
goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, milkweed, phlox, thistle; non-flower sources: animal droppings, rotting fruit, sap
apple, cherry, poplar, willow
meadows, streambanks, willow groves, woodland edges
Mourning cloak
butterfly bush*, ceanothus, milkweed, tree sap, zinnia
birch, elm, hackberry, willow
streambanks, suburban areas, woodlands
Buckeye
aster, buckwheat, chickory, coreopsis, globe thistle, milkweed
mint, monkey flower, plantain, snapdragon, toadflax
coastal areas, meadows, open fields, thin brush
Pearl crescent
aster, black-eyed Susan, clover, coreopsis, globe thistle, milkweed
aster, michaelmas daisy
cultivated flower gardens, meadows, roadsides
Painted lady
anise hyssop, aster, bee balm, butterfly bush*, buttonbush, goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, phlox, sedum, thistle, zinnia
hollyhock, mallow, many common weeds, sunflower, thistle
cultivated flower gardens, meadows, open woodlands
*Buddleja (butterfly bush) should be planted only with great caution. It can self seed and spread aggressively in the garden.

 

A garden visit from a great spangled fritillary butterfly; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ James St. John
A garden visit from a great spangled fritillary butterfly; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ James St. John

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Butterflies in your Garden

 Monarch

 

 

Black Swallowtail

 

Tiger Swallowtail

 

Great Spangled Fritillary

 

Spring Azure

 

Buckeye

Noteworthy Books on Butterfly Gardens