Plants That Attract Butterflies
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
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
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.
• Passion Vine
• Wild Senna
• Wild Lilacs
• Wild Plums and Cherries
• Aspens and Willows
• Wild Lime
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
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:
• Bee balm
• Butterfly bush
• Butterfly plant
• Bush cinquefolia
• Ornamental thistles
• Rabbit brush
• Sweet pea
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.