Gardening tips and tricks

Plants That Attract Butterflies

Jul 31, 2021

To attract the greatest number of butterflies and have

them as residents in your yard you will need to have plants

that serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly. They

need a place to lay eggs, food plants for the larva

(caterpillar), a place to form a chrysalis, and nectar sources

for the adult.

Most adult butterflies live 10-20 days. Some, however,

are believed to live no longer than three or four days, while

others, such as over wintering monarchs, may live six


Butterfly tarsi or "feet" possess a sense similar to taste.

Contact with sweet liquids such as nectar causes the

proboscis to uncoil. Millions of shingle-like, overlapping

scales give butterfly wings their color and patterns. Metallic,

iridescent hues come from faceted scales that refract light;

solid colors are from pigmented scales.

During the time from hatching to pupating (forming the

pupa or chrysalis), the caterpillar may increase its body size

more than 30,000 times. The chrysalises or pupae of many

common gossamer wings - a group of butterflies which

includes the blues, hairstreaks and elfins - are capable of

producing weak sounds. By flexing and rubbing together

body segment membranes, sounds are generated that may

frighten off small predators and parasites.

In order to make a yard more attractive to butterflies,

you need to provide the proper environment. Most important

are food plants used by the immature stages (various

caterpillars), food sources used by the adult butterflies, and

physical environment.

Adult female butterflies spend time searching for food

plants required by the immature caterpillar stage. Most

butterflies have specific host plants on which they develop.

For example, caterpillars of the monarch butterfly develop

only on milkweed, while the black swallowtail feeds only on

parsley, dill and closely related plants. When females find

the proper host plant, they may lay eggs on it.

Providing the necessary food plants for the developing

caterpillars also allows production of a "native" population

that can be observed in all stages of development. Most

species, however, fly away as adult butterflies.

Plants that attract butterflies can be divided into two

categories; those that attract adults, and those that are food

plants for butterfly larvae (Caterpillars). To attract more

than just the passing wanderer, plant a good mix from both


By providing plants that the caterpillars can feed on,

you will surely have butterflies come and stay. Please

remember that Caterpillars will eat the foliage of these

plants; therefore, you must accept the damage and forgo

the insecticides.

Adults searching for nectar are attracted to:

• red, yellow, orange, pink, or purple blossoms

• flat-topped or clustered flowers

• short flower tubes

Short flower tubes allow the butterflies to reach the

nectar with their proboscis. Nectar-producing plants should

be grown in open, sunny areas, as adults of most species

rarely feed on plants in the shade.

Many caterpillars are picky eaters. They rely on only

one or two species of plants. The caterpillar of the giant

swallowtail butterfly in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic States

feed on just two native plant foods - Northern prickly ash

and hop tree. Others, such as the red-spotted purple, will

feed on a variety of deciduous trees.

Food for adult butterflies usually consists of sweet

liquids, such as nectar from flowers that provide energy.

Some flowers contain more nectar, and are more attractive

to butterflies. Often, specific types of flowers and flower

colors also are more attractive. Some species feed on

honeydew (produced by aphids), plant sap, rotting fruit and

even bird dung.

To attract butterflies to your garden, you need the

flowers that produce the nectar that butterflies drink. Nectar

is the butterfly’s main source of food. To raise butterflies in

your garden you need to grow the plants that caterpillars


There are certain plants that will attract caterpillars. If

you want to observe the caterpillar’s transformation into a

butterfly, plant these and let them come.

• Milkweeds

• Passion Vine

• Hollyhocks

• Wild Senna

• Pipevines

• Carrot

• Fennel

• Parsley

• Dill

• Wild Lilacs

• Wild Plums and Cherries

• Buckthorns

• Ashes

• Hop-tree

• Aspens and Willows

• Poplars

• Sage

• Poplar

• Wild Lime

• Citrus

• Carrot

• Fennel

As far as adult butterflies, they will stay in your garden

for longer periods of time if you have plants for them to lay

their eggs on.

Patches of plants that flower at the same time are more

attractive to butterflies than a single plant with a few


Plant your flowers in sunny places and provide some

rocks or stone walls where they can "bask" in the morning to

warm up.

Provide a few sheltered areas, like shrubbery or brush

piles to protect them from wind and rain, and provide

caterpillars a nice place to pupate.

You should plant more than one source of nectar.

Planting a variety of nectar sources will encourage more

butterflies to visit the garden.

Here are some nectar bearing plants that usually

attract adult butterflies:

• Asters

• Bee balm

• Butterfly bush

• Butterfly plant

• Bush cinquefolia

• Cosmos

• Gaillardia

• Lilac

• Marigold

• Ornamental thistles

• Rabbit brush

• Sunflower

• Sweet pea

• Verbena

• Zinnias

Bright colors seem to attract more butterflies, but more

importantly, large swaths of color will make it easier for

them to find your garden.

You may want to include the aptly-named butterfly

bush. This large shrub (up to 10 feet) is a magnet to

butterflies. In mild-winter areas, its delicate silver foliage

adds a pleasing contrast to evergreens.

You should cut back to about 18" in late winter because

it will grow quickly! In a small garden stick to one of the

dwarf varieties which reach about five feet (Nanho blue,

petite indigo and others). Buddleia is now considered an

invasive plant in coastal areas. Watch for and remove

seedlings. If you live near a natural area, plant an

alternative such as native wild lilac.

Deadheading spent blossoms on Buddleia and flowers

like marigold will encourage new blooms and prolong your

garden's butterfly appeal.

If you can spare a corner out of the garden limelight,

encourage dandelions and clover; these humble plants are

attractive nectar sources. Don't tidy up too much, either.

A few rotten apples left under your tree might entice a

Red Admiral to stop and eat. This striking butterfly

supplements its diet with amino acids from decaying fruit,

even animal scat. A brush or wood pile can give shelter to

over wintering adults and larvae of several species.