How to Create a Garden Mecca for Butterflies

Updated on April 22, 2019
Casey White profile image

Dorothy is a Master Gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of several books. Michael is a landscape/nature photographer in NM.

This eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly was patiently waiting for us to go back indoors so it could land on the hollyhocks planted nearby.  An adult butterfly has an average life-span of about one month, so enjoy them while you can.
This eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly was patiently waiting for us to go back indoors so it could land on the hollyhocks planted nearby. An adult butterfly has an average life-span of about one month, so enjoy them while you can. | Source

Butterflies Add Movement

I always love to see butterflies in our yard because they add movement to the stationary plants as they feed on the nectar-rich flowers. They always seem to prefer flowers that offer them a landing spot or a perch to hold onto while they are feeding. Particular favorites of butterflies are flowers in the daisy family, which provide them with both of those things.

You may think to plant the most colorful flowers is necessary to attract butterflies, but they don't see colors the same way we do. They can only detect the ultraviolet color patterns of the flowers which are invisible to our eyes. That color pattern creates a road map to the nectar for not only butterflies but bees as well.

There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world but you can get the attention of many different species by planting flowers en masse rather than single flowers scattered about your yard. A large array of blossoms is easily detected by both sight and smell.

Butterflies also like the sunshine, so planting flowers where they receive plenty of hours of sunshine is also a plus in creating your butterfly mecca.

The Two Functions of Plants

Plants serve two different functions for butterflies; they are either nectar plants or host plants on which butterflies can lay their eggs. You will find that different species of butterflies prefer different flowers.

Butterflies will usually lay their eggs on the underside of leaves, but only on the plants that the caterpillar will eventually eat. So, when planning a butterfly garden, you should consider providing both nectar plants and host plants.

Refer to a Field Guide

If you are, indeed, serious about attracting butterflies, you should consult a good field guide that can help determine which species are most likely to frequent your area, then plant the specific hot and nectar plants to attract them. As always, you should refer to the USDA growing zone map to determine which flowers you can successfully grow in your area.

Cold-Blooded Creatures

Keep in mind when you are planning your garden that butterflies are cold-blooded creatures and always appreciate warm resting places like flat stones or bricks. They also will appreciate having shelter from wind and inclement weather.

Annual Flowers That Attract Butterflies

This is a list of some of my favorite plants (list doesn't include the butterfly bush but that one is a given) that should have beautiful butterflies flocking to your yard:

  • Floss flowers (Ageratum houstonianum) - The fluffy, round clusters of this flower look great alongside other bedding plants. Not only will it attract butterflies, but it is also deer resistant, and blooms nonstop from summer to fall. Also, it is one of the few annuals that will tolerate shady areas.
  • Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) - Snapdragons can tolerate only a minimal amount of shade. Only some varieties of these flowers are true annuals, meaning they grow, flower, set seed and die all within one growing season. Others are short-lived perennials. Snapdragons are host plants for caterpillars.
  • Golden tickseed (Coreopsis tintoria) - This flower is also known as plains coreopsis, garden coreopsis, or calliopsis. It is native to the western part of the United States. Single, daisy-like flowers up to two inches in diameter feature several yellow rays with reddish-brown center disks. Each of the rays is toothed at the tip with reddish-brown spots at the base. The flowers will typically bloom from late spring to fall.
  • Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) - The ferny foliage of this plant is almost as attractive as its white, pink or crimson flowers. They are simple to grow from seeds.
  • Dahlias (Dahlia x hybrida) - This annual variety belongs to the daisy family (Asteraceae). There are so many different varieties of dahlias that it is hard to recommend any one of them. They are all gorgeous, and growing them is remarkably simple. Although they are often considered a 'bulb', their root system is, in fact, comprised of tubers that resemble pale carrots.
  • Blanket Flowers (Gaillardia pulchella) - These colorful flowers can be seen along many roadsides here in the Southwest where it is a native wildflower. They will thrive, however in almost every state except the upper northwest and pacific northwest and a few other states in the upper midwest.
  • Petunias (Petunia x atkinsiana) - Although petunias are actually perennials, they are most often grown as annuals. You can plant them in the spring and watch them bloom throughout the warm months, then die in the fall when temperatures begin to drop. You can grow them as a summer annual in areas with cold winters, or as a perennial in warmer areas.
  • Creeping Zinnias (Sanvitalia procumbens) - The butterflies will flock to your hanging baskets if you plant these beauties in them. They are low-growing and trail beautifully down the sides of a hanging container. They are great groundcover plants that, once established, will provide you with a constant display of flowers all season long.
  • Marigolds (Tagetes patula) - This species of marigolds is a true annual and also known as French marigolds. Not only do butterflies love them, but you are bound to see some hummingbirds feasting on them as well. This is a is a compact annual that typically grows from 6-12” tall and features single, semi-double, double or crested flowers of yellow, orange, red and bicolor. It is a frost tolerant plant that is also deer resistant.
  • Mexican Sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia - Tithonia rotundifolia is a very tall plant (4-6 feet) that is native to the warmer, moister parts of North and Central America. Monarch butterflies, along with many other pollinators, love these sunflowers, which are easy to start from seed but can also be started from cuttings.
  • Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) - These beautiful flowers in orange, red, and yellow are also known as Indian Cress. This variety of nasturtium is a product of cultivation which does not exist in the wild. They will bloom from June through September or October. The leaves and flowers are both edible. Much like creeping zinnias, they are great as either groundcover or in hanging baskets. Nasturtiums are host plants for caterpillars.
  • Zinnias (Zinnia elegans) - Zinnias are one of the most popular plants in the world. They are simple to grow, genetically diverse, versatile and widely adaptable. The large seeds germinate very quickly. Flowers are available in almost every color except blue. In 2016, zinnias were the first flowers to bloom in space, on board the International Space Station.

Some of the Flowers Butterflies Love

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Butterflies naturally love the butterfly bush in our yard.  If you want to see a lot of butterflies, you might want to plant one of these beautiful bushes.Not only do the butterflies love sunflowers, but if you plant them, the birds will appreciate your garden as well. Butterflies do love purple coneflowers.
Butterflies naturally love the butterfly bush in our yard.  If you want to see a lot of butterflies, you might want to plant one of these beautiful bushes.
Butterflies naturally love the butterfly bush in our yard. If you want to see a lot of butterflies, you might want to plant one of these beautiful bushes. | Source
Not only do the butterflies love sunflowers, but if you plant them, the birds will appreciate your garden as well.
Not only do the butterflies love sunflowers, but if you plant them, the birds will appreciate your garden as well. | Source
Butterflies do love purple coneflowers.
Butterflies do love purple coneflowers. | Source

Abbreviations sp. and spp.

The abbreviation "spp." (plural) indicates several species. You won't see them italicized or underlined. For example: "Phlox sp." means "an unspecified species of the genus Phlox," while "Phlox spp." means "two or more species of the genus Phlox."

Mecca-Creating Perennials

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Golden tickseed is known by several other common names, including plains coreopsis, garden coreopsis, or calliopsis.Hollyhocks have a very long blooming season and can live for many years if you cut the stalk off at the base after the flowers fade.  They can grow to be several feet tall, depending on which variety you plant, so allow them plenty of room.Blue wild indigo is a robust perennial that can grow up to four feet tall, with a spread of up to three feet, so these flowers also need adequate room in order to flourish.Although the purple coneflower has very low fertility needs, it does not compete well with other flowers so bear that in mind when placing them in your garden.Blanket flowers, perennial daisies, are very popular here in New Mexico.  Butterflies love them, but deer don't.
Golden tickseed is known by several other common names, including plains coreopsis, garden coreopsis, or calliopsis.
Golden tickseed is known by several other common names, including plains coreopsis, garden coreopsis, or calliopsis. | Source
Hollyhocks have a very long blooming season and can live for many years if you cut the stalk off at the base after the flowers fade.  They can grow to be several feet tall, depending on which variety you plant, so allow them plenty of room.
Hollyhocks have a very long blooming season and can live for many years if you cut the stalk off at the base after the flowers fade. They can grow to be several feet tall, depending on which variety you plant, so allow them plenty of room.
Blue wild indigo is a robust perennial that can grow up to four feet tall, with a spread of up to three feet, so these flowers also need adequate room in order to flourish.
Blue wild indigo is a robust perennial that can grow up to four feet tall, with a spread of up to three feet, so these flowers also need adequate room in order to flourish. | Source
Although the purple coneflower has very low fertility needs, it does not compete well with other flowers so bear that in mind when placing them in your garden.
Although the purple coneflower has very low fertility needs, it does not compete well with other flowers so bear that in mind when placing them in your garden. | Source
Blanket flowers, perennial daisies, are very popular here in New Mexico.  Butterflies love them, but deer don't.
Blanket flowers, perennial daisies, are very popular here in New Mexico. Butterflies love them, but deer don't. | Source

The Ugly Side of Butterflies

Attracting butterflies to your yard also means you'll have to tolerate the damage they can do as larvae. Caterpillars live for several weeks, growing larger and eating the foliage or flowers of the host plant.

Perennial Flowers That Attract Butterflies

These are some of the best flowers you can plant to guarantee a multitude of butterflies in your garden:

  • Hollyhock (Alcea rosea) - Hollyhocks are a favorite of many people because of their long blooming season. Although they are considered a short-lived perennial in USDA growing zones 3-8, they can live for many years if, after the flowers fade, you cut the stalk off at the base.
  • Blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis) - This plant can grow up to four feet tall from a woody base. It is a very robust, bushy perennial with blue-purple flowers that are congested in dense terminal spikes. In the late fall, look for the plant to turn a silvery-gray color, often breaking off at the ground, only to begin tumbling through the yard in the wind.
  • Purple coneflowers (Echinaea purpurea) - Birds and butterflies alike love coneflowers. If you live in USDA growing zones 3-8, you might want to plant some of these beauties in your yard. They are drought tolerant and bloom from June to August.
  • Blanket flowers (Gaillardia x grandiflora) - Blanket flowers will appear on sturdy stems high above the plant's foliage. Most varieties reach heights from about 18-22 inches tall. They are hardy from zones 5-9 and make great container plants.
  • Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) - Butterflies will flock to sunflowers because of the bright color, large flower heads, nectar, and nice foliage that is super caterpillar food.
  • Beebalm (Monarda didyma) - Butterflies, bees and other pollinators like beebalm because it provides them shelter from predators. You can grow it in a variety of different soils, but this plant prefers dry to medium soil.
  • Phlox (Phlox spp.) - Butterflies love phlox and by planting several varieties, you can keep your garden filled with color from spring through late summer.
  • Primrose (Primula spp.) - Butterflies and hummingbirds both love to drink the nectar from the primrose plant, especially the evening primrose.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

Comments

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    • Casey White profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike and Dorothy McKenney 

      8 months ago from United States

      Thanks so much! I JUST CAN'T WAIT FOR SPRING!!!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      8 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Mike and Dorothy - I love to see butterflies in my garden so really appreciated this list. I love the purple coneflowers as the butterflies sure like to visit them. By September they also attract goldfinch to my yard.

    • Casey White profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike and Dorothy McKenney 

      9 months ago from United States

      Thank you so much! When things are very still in your flower garden, there's nothing more beautiful than seeing butterflies fluttering above them.

    • Casey White profile imageAUTHOR

      Mike and Dorothy McKenney 

      9 months ago from United States

      I know exactly what you mean about the caterpillars. They can really do some damage sometimes. Thanks for reading.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      9 months ago from New Delhi, India

      Wonderful article about creating a garden to attract the butterflies. The colourful butterflies look so beautiful, when they fly over the pretty and colourful flowers.

      Your pictures are awesome.

      Thanks for sharing this useful information!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      9 months ago from Sunny Florida

      I love butterflies, but I am not to found of caterpillars. The list of flowers includes some of my favorites and I am glad to know they are ones that attract those beautiful butterflies.

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