You too can have a great butterfly garden – it can start small and grow with time, bringing you year-round beauty and delight to all the senses. But to maximize your butterfly visitors later in the year, you need to plant the right foliage this spring. There are many beautiful plants that you can add to your garden that will attract butterflies. There are also some very homely ones that shouldn’t be overlooked.
When planning your garden, you need to think of two classes of plants, those that are food plants for caterpillars, and those that are nectar-producing plants for the adults. You should also have something flowering in the spring, summer and fall to help the butterflies through their entire lifecycle. When selecting flowering plants, use those with colors which complement your garden design, but know that butterflies are attracted to purple, pink, white and yellow flowers. Also, most of the plants attractive to butterflies grow in full sun, so make sure that the area you select gets at least 6 hours of sun a day. And remember to plant “en masse,” that is group similar colors together in a clump rather than spreading them around as individual plants. This makes it easier for the butterflies to find them.
To attract butterflies, your garden is not complete without some common milkweed – also called swamp milkweed. These plants typically grow in sunny field environments and are notorious self-seeders, so plant them along an edge of your property that you want to see “naturalized”. Milkweed is important because it is the main food plant for the caterpillars of the Monarch and Queen butterflies. The milkweed is also a nectar source from which adult butterflies such as the Monarch, several types of Swallowtail, the Sulfurs, Painted Ladies and more feed. They flower in the summer and are not what one could call attractive, but if you want butterflies, you’ve got to have milkweeds.
The most popular woody shrub that you can plant to attract butterflies is called the Butterfly Bush or Buddleia and comes in colors from lavender to deep purple. The Monarchs and Swallowtails love these bushes and will be all over them in late summer when they bloom. My garden has three giants in the front of the house that are lavender and two smaller plants in the back of the house that are the deep purple. Either color seems to attract the butterflies just as well, and their sweet, lilac-like scent is a welcome addition to our late summer landscape. The secret to cultivating Buddleia is to cut them back every fall to about 18” above the ground level. They will easily grow back to 8’ tall in one season, but what’s most important is that the best flowers grow on new wood.
Another woody shrub they like is the Staghorn Sumac. We’ve got some growing up on a hillside, and that’s where it belongs. You don’t want it near your house, as it can cause skin irritation if you rub against it. Blueberries, Blue Iris flowers, Rhododendrons and Spicebush are also very popular with butterflies and their early flowers make them a key part of any butterfly garden. Tall perennial flowers that butterflies love are Queen Anne’s lace, Black Eyed Susan, Purple Coneflower, Asters, Coreopsis, and Daisies. They can be purchased at a local nursery in pots and will come back year after year. In the fall, cut them to about 6” above the ground, and rub the dried flowers between your hands to release their seeds and spread them where you want some more.
Low-growing perennial plants that they like are clover and mint. If you’re a lawn fanatic don’t plant either of these as they will spread and take over in direct proportion to how much you don’t want them to. Our garden has some pineapple-scented mint that the butterflies love and we eat in teas, salads and our annual mint juleps. They also smell wonderful when mowed with the lawn mower and seem to thrive. In the vegetable garden you can plant anise, parsley and carrots to attract butterflies. These also attract some types of moths, so you need to be prepared to lose some of your harvest to them, but I think it’s worth it.
And last, to the less beautiful but hardy common weeds that attract butterflies. Some of the weeds that shouldn’t be overlooked are Fireweed, Goldenrod, Butterfly weed, Wild Geraniums, and Cinquefoil. They grow in poor or good soils, and are best used as naturalizing elements in the transition zone from your woods to your lawn along the edges of your property. With a little planning, your garden can look beautiful to you and to all sorts of butterflies. When you see dozens of bright orange Monarch butterflies flitting about in August when everything is turning drab, the rewards of your efforts will be obvious!