Designing Gardens for Butterflies
By Alice Yarborough
Reprinted from Butterfly Gardens, a handbook in Brooklyn Botanic Garden's 21st-Century
Gardening Series, Summer 1995. Copyright © 1995 Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Gardening for butterflies is a suspenseful art, a bit like holding a picnic and wondering if your invited guests
will show up. Butterflies are choosy insects. Any gardener can have aphids, but Red Admirals, Painted Ladies
and Tiger Swallowtails insist that certain conditions be met.
Ample sunshine is the foremost consideration. Butterflies avoid shady areas. Ideally, your garden should have
a southern exposure. Butterflies use early morning sunlight for basking on sun-warmed rocks, bricks or gravel
paths. As morning temperatures rise, they begin visiting their favorite nectar flowers, but always in sunlit areas
of the garden.
They prefer gardens that are sheltered from prevailing winds. If yours is not, consider planting a windscreen
of lilac, mock orange, butterfly bush or viburnum--all shrubs whose flowers are rich in nectar.
Style vs Content
A butterfly garden's style is not as important as its content. It should offer nectar flowers throughout the
growing season. Luckily, many of our most loved annuals and perennials are top-notch nectar sources. While
native American species play an important role as host plants for hungry butterfly caterpillars, most adult
butterflies have cosmopolitan tastes, supping as readily on the nectar-filled flowers of Hylotelephium
spectabile, a Chinese native, as they do on our own native bee balm, Monarda didyma.
Butterflies seem especially attracted to gardens boasting generous patches of a given nectar flower. If you plant
red valerian, Centranthus ruber, don't settle for one or two specimens. Try growing three or more patches of
this especially popular nectar flower, and watch the swallowtails drift from clump to clump. Using the plant
encyclopedia in this handbook, you may want to start from scratch and populate an entire garden solely with
nectar plants. Most readers, however, will wish to enhance an existing garden with the addition of
butterfly-attracting flowers and shrubs.
What to Plant
Remember that a given flower that attracts butterflies in one area may not necessarily prove a favorite with
differing species of butterflies elsewhere in the country. For example, butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa,
although mobbed by butterflies in many sections of the U.S., is routinely ignored by those cruising my Pacific
Northwest garden. Experiment and learn which flowers your local butterflies prefer.
Because I love old-fashioned cottage gardens, my own butterfly garden is filled with informal groups of plants
of varied heights, including many low growers spilling forth onto the garden's gravel paths.
Grape hyacinths, pulmonaria, rock cress, azaleas, lilacs, wallflowers and pinks furnish nectar in early and mid
spring. From late spring on through autumn, an abundance of excellent butterfly plants comes into bloom.
Primula vialii, the June-blooming orchid primrose, is thickly interplanted with tall forget-me-nots. I use
perennial alpine pinks, biennial sweet William and self-sowing annual candytuft to edge beds of red valerian
and June-blooming yarrows such as pale yellow Achillea 'Taygetea' and Achillea 'Moonshine'. Tall perennial
phlox and purple coneflowers are planted behind the red valerian to provide color and nectar in July and
Dominating one end of the garden, Joe-pye weed waves its butterfly-laden flowerheads on high for weeks in
late summer. Planted in front of it, and sharing its bloom period, are patches of red monarda and the tall hybrid
yarrow, 'Coronation Gold'. A large drift of purple-flowered anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum, completes
the picture. Although the garden hosts a considerable variety of nectar flowers, when anise hyssop and
Joe-pye weed are in bloom butterflies concentrate on them--much as they mobbed other favorites earlier in the
summer. Edging this bed are clumps of golden marjoram, oregano, rosy-flowered Hylotelephium spectabile
'Carmen' and the little Mexican daisy Erigeron karvinskianus--all excellent nectar plants.
In September and October, purple hardy asters, backed with golden heleniums and Taiyo sunflowers, create a
dazzling picture. In my garden, original species asters attract far more bees and butterflies than do the modern
hybrids. Gardeners in arid sections of the country will find many butterfly flowers that are drought tolerant.
Yarrow, lantana, verbena, coreopsis, lavender, butterfly weed, sedum, erigeron, hardy asters and centranthus
all thrive on dry, sunny sites.
Making Mud Puddles
If your garden has a low, dampish area with indifferent drainage, plant moisture lovers like the rosy-flowered
swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Joe-pye weed, forget-me-nots, monardas and meadow sweet
(Filipendula palmata). Create a shallow puddle to attract swallowtails, blues, sulfurs and other butterflies that
enjoy drinking at mud puddles. (They do so to obtain needed salts in their diet.) A sprinkling of table salt and
the addition of some manure will increase the puddle's appeal for butterflies. Since salt harms plants, however,
use a plastic liner or locate the puddle outside your flower border. A butterfly gardener's bonus is that many
nectar flowers are also popular with hummingbirds, bees and nocturnal hawk moths, such as the beautiful
Although many butterfly caterpillars subsist on leaves of native weeds and trees, you may discover certain
ones within your flower garden as well. West Coast Ladies sometimes lay eggs on the leaves of ornamental
mallows. Painted Ladies, which instinctively lay their eggs on thistle plants, also find an acceptable substitute
in the hairy leaves of borage. Spying dozens of Painted Lady caterpillars on your borage plants does not mean
the end result will be a crowd of butterflies emerging from their chrysalises in your garden. Alas! Such
collections of juicy caterpillar morsels are handy food marts for wasps and hungry birds. Lucky is the
caterpillar who survives to become a butterfly.
Don't fret too much about butterfly larvae chewing your prized plants to bits. Natural predators usually keep
caterpillar populations under control. Also, the larvae of many butterfly species feed only on certain native
plants and trees. Butterfly gardeners should not use insecticides and herbicides. Chemical warfare kills
indiscriminately: Butterflies, their larvae and their natural predators are all destroyed. Organic gardeners
tolerate a chewed leaf or blossom and handpick voracious insects or knock them off plants with water from the
hose. You can also move offending butterfly caterpillars to other acceptable host plants nearby. I have
transferred West Coast Lady larvae from ornamental mallow leaves to those of Malva neglecta, a common
ground-hugging weed found in many gardens. Mostly, however, I welcome the occasional presence of
butterfly caterpillars in my garden, sometimes carrying one indoors along with a spray of its food plant so that
I can observe the miracle of metamorphosis.
Try keeping a brief journal of your butterfly-watching experiences. Buy a good field guide to help you identify
your butterfly visitors as well as their eggs and caterpillars. Butterfly gardening can be a lifelong adventure that
becomes more exciting as your knowledge grows.
10 Guidelines for Butterfly Gardening
1.Watch butterflies in nearby areas to see which flowers they prefer.
2.Grow these plants and ones recommended in this book.
3.Position plants in a sunny place, sheltered from wind.
4.Grow large clumps of the most favored species.
5.Try to maintain diversity in height, color and blooming periods.
6.Avoid or limit your use of pesticides.
7.Provide a mud puddle in a sunny spot.
8.Grow larval plants for butterflies that appear in your garden.
9.Try some plants in containers for increased flexibility.
10.Leave some undisturbed corners for weedy larval and nectar plants.
About the author: Alice Yarborough has contributed articles and photography on butterfly
gardening to Fine Gardening magazine and The Butterfly Garden by Jerry Sedenko. Her
article "Gardening for Wildlife" appears in the new Taylor Master Guide to Gardening.
Mirror Home Page / Garden Patch / BBG Home Page