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How to Design a Garden That Will Attract Butterflies

Dorothy is a master gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of several books. Michael is a landscape and nature photographer.

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 lifespan 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 lifespan of about one month, so enjoy them while you can.

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 planting 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 that 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.

12 Annual Flowers That Attract Butterflies

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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 that 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.
  12. 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.

8 Perennial Flowers That Attract Butterflies

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Phlox (Phlox spp.): Butterflies love phlox, and by planting several varieties, you can keep your garden filled with color from spring through late summer.
  8. 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


Mike and Dorothy McKenney (author) from United States on March 02, 2019:

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

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on March 02, 2019:

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.

Mike and Dorothy McKenney (author) from United States on February 19, 2019:

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

Mike and Dorothy McKenney (author) from United States on February 19, 2019:

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

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on February 18, 2019:

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!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on February 18, 2019:

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.