Creating a Butterly Garden

“Just living is not enough,” said the butterfly. “One must have sunshine,freedom and a little flower.”
~Hans Christian Andersen 

Gardeners generally agree with this sentiment – all we need is “sunshine, freedom, and a little flower” to bring contentment to our life.  And, many gardeners can add butterflies to this list.  Butterflies are enchanting and alluring.  They flit and flutter from flower to flower, mesmerizing the garden visitor as they go about their day gathering nectar, stopping to warm themselves in the sun, and laying eggs.

To attract butterflies to our garden, we need to understand how the life cycle of the butterfly impacts our garden features and plant choices.  Butterflies require four basic things: food, water, sunshine, and shelter.  Each of these necessities relates to the life-stage of the butterfly in a unique way.  Harkening back to our primary school days, let us recall what we learned about metamorphosis.  A butterfly undergoes a complete transformation beginning with the egg, which becomes a larva (caterpillar), which pupates into a pupa or chrysalis, and, finally, emerges as a butterfly.  To welcome butterflies, the adult insect, we also need to set the stage and roll out the welcome mat for eggs, larvae, and pupae!


Our Grandma’s Rule: “First eat your vegetables and then you can have dessert”. 

Butterfly Grandma’s Rule: “First eat your host plant, and then you can have your nectar.” 

Butterflies can enjoy nectar from any flower.  However, butterflies require specific host plants on which to lay their eggs.  Some butterflies, such as Monarchs, have only one host plant species – Asclepias (also known as Milkweed or Butterfly Weed).  Other butterflies have several host plants.  For example, the Black Swallowtail will lay her eggs on dill, parsley, fennel, rue, and Queen Anne’s Lace.  The important thing to realize about the female butterfly’s choice for where she will lay her eggs is that it is based on the larva’s food requirements.  The larvae of each species of butterfly will only eat the leaves of its particular host plant.  Butterflies that have a restricted number of host plants, such as the Monarch, are threatened when the habitat for those plants are threatened.  Due to loss of habitat, the population of Monarch butterflies has dropped by 970 million, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  So, a garden designed to attract and to provide for butterflies must incorporate the larval host plants for the butterflies that are common to that region.  Understanding the value of larval host plants helps one to know what to include in the garden.  But, we need to take it a step further and realize that the host plants are going to get eaten!  We might need to re-frame our vision of beauty in the garden so that we are excited when we see the leaves disappearing on our host plants.  And, we can position the host plants toward the rear of the garden or situated in some way so that the nectar plants have the spotlight.

While butterflies will enjoy the nectar from a variety of flowers, there are some considerations to help attract them.  Butterflies are attracted to mass plantings of nectar plants – large patches of color rather than a single flower here and there.  They tend to like flat-topped and short-tubed flowers.  They also like composite, daisy-type flowers.  They seem to prefer purple, red, yellow, orange, and pink flowers.  While they are attracted by fragrance, different butterflies are drawn to different fragrances.  Additionally, plants that are “native” to a region grow well in the soil and cultural conditions indigenous to that area.  Native plants will be less stressed, will grow well, and will be less likely to develop diseases and harbor pests.  To create a garden that is welcoming to butterflies, one must accept all of the insects and critters that visit the garden.  Sprays that get rid of the undesired pests are also harmful to the butterfly, in all stages.  And, butterflies that are indigenous to a region derive the most benefit from plants that are also native to that area.


While water is necessary for all living beings, butterflies particularly like muddy or sandy puddles!  Golfers frequently come upon sand traps with large gatherings of butterflies.  It is also common to see large groups of butterflies gathered in puddles in pastures and places where animals frequent.  This practice is actually referred to as “mud-puddling”.  It is the male butterflies which tend to do the “mud-puddling”.  It is believed that the males are gathering salts and amino acids which they pass along to the female when mating.  Gardeners can create a puddle in the butterfly garden by sinking a shallow dish into the soil, filling it with some sand, pebbles, a bit of soil, and water.


Butterflies cannot fly when they are cold, wet, or newly emerged.  They like to warm themselves in nice sunny spots.  A gardener might offer a rock feature or a cement statue that absorbs the sun’s heat for the butterflies to sun themselves.  Additionally, the butterflies will be more likely to visit the flowers located in a garden that gets full sun (sun for six or more hours per day).


Butterfly wings are delicate and cannot withstand storms.  Butterflies seek shelter in shrubs and trees.  Some trees and shrubs are larval host plants for certain species of butterflies.  For example, the birch tree is host to the Mourning Cloak butterfly.  The Spicebush Swallowtail larvae depend upon the Sassafras for food.  And, the host plant for the Spring Azure is the Dogwood tree and shrubs.  Some shrubs also offer nectar to butterflies, including azaleas, lilacs, and sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia).  One could include in the garden a nifty-looking butterfly house, with slots that the butterfly can squeeze through.  But, incorporating shrubs and trees along the perimeter of the garden can provide the added value of food and nectar!

Plants at Good Harvest for Butterflies Common to Pennsylvania

At Good Harvest Supply, we are committed to sustainable practices that promote a healthy environment.  We are expanding our efforts to support pollinators, which include butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, bees, and bats, by supplying pollinator plants and providing instruction.  While we already carry many host plants, we will be expanding our selection, with educational displays and informed staff persons who are ready to answer questions.  Here are a few examples of butterflies that are common to our area, listed with the plant on which they lay their eggs.

Butterfly                                                                    Host Plant (Caterpillars)   Baltimore Checkerspot                                       Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii)
Black Swallowtail                                                Dill, Parsley, Fennel, Rue
Buckeye                                                              Snapdragon, Heliotrope,  Verbena
Dainty Sulphur                                                    Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)
Gray Hairstreak, Common Checkered Skipper  Hibiscus, Hollyhock, Rose of Sharon
Monarch                                                              Asclepias spp.
Painted Lady, Common Checkered Skipper       Hollyhock. Pearly Everlasting, Artemisia
Pearl Crescent                                                     Aster spp.
Silvery Blue                                                          Lupine

Favorite Nectar Perennials
Aster spp. (especially Aster novae-angliae ‘Harrington’s Pink’)
Bee Balm (Monarda)
Blanket Flower (Gaillardia aristata, Gaillardia x grandiflora)
Butterfly weed, Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa, Asclepias incarnate)
Coreopsis (Coreopsis grandiflora, Coreopsis lanceolata)
Gayfeather (Liatris spp.)
Geranium spp.
Gloriosa Daisy (Rudbeckia hirta)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
Hardy Ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum)
Heliopsis (Heliopsis helianthoides)
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Ironweed (Vernonia spp.)
Joe-pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum)
Phlox (Phlox drummondii, Phlox paniculata)
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Stoke’s Aster (Stokesia laevis)
Verbena (Verbena bonariensis)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Favorite Nectar Annuals
Marigold (Tagetes spp.)
Starcluster (Pentas lanceolata)
Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)

“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
~Nathaniel Hawthorne

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