Articles - Information About Butterflies, Caterpillars & Plants

Perfert Flowers for Butterfly Gardens
May 2009
by Regina Cutter Edwards

Butterfly gardens are one of the most popular specialty gardens. They are composed of nectar-producing plants and host plants for butterflies to lay eggs. The gardens can be anywhere from large fields and prairies to small containers such as flower pots or window boxes. 

The objective of a butterfly garden is to provide food and shelter for butterflies throughout their life cycle. They need a place to rest their wings and bask in the sun, a place to keep them safe from high winds and falling rain, and they need food throughout the year.

Planning your Butterfly Haven
Skipper and ConeflowerThe key to having a successful garden is planning. It is crucial to know the butterflies that are in your area. (The Gardens With Wings website provides this information based on your Zip Code). Knowing your butterflies will determine which plants to add to your garden. The most favorable plants to include in your garden are plant species that are native or naturalized in your area.

Fun in the Sun
The next step to planning your butterfly haven is to find a sunny location. Most butterfly friendly plants require full sun, at least 6 hours of direct sunlight. There are a few plants that will do fine in part sun and some butterflies enjoy a little shade so just make sure you plan for these variations.

Finding the Perfect Flowers
When designing the perfect butterfly setting it is important to think about 4 features: Purpose, Colors, Height, and Blooms.

Red-spotted Purple and Butterfly BushPurpose
The purpose of the plants is either for nectar (food for butterflies) or as a host plant (food for caterpillars). It is important to have both types of plants in the garden. Butterflies are more likely to hang around longer if everything they need is available to them.

Swamp MilkweedColors
Colors should be planted in groups and not as a single plant. If you are unable to have many plants of the same variety at least try to keep the same colored plants together. Butterflies are more likely to see a group of yellow flowers compared to a single yellow bloom mixed in with other colors. But don’t forget the other colors. A colorful garden will attract a wider variety of butterflies.
Butterfly PlantsHeight 
The height of plants is important because like colors, different heights are attractive to butterflies. Butterflies prefer variety. Plants with different heights are stimulating for butterflies for a few reasons; they are visually pleasing, the different heights accommodate the different level feeding behaviors, and they provide shelter.
Double Bloom Marigold Flower Blooms
Blooms are also an important feature in a butterfly garden. When the flower is blooming, nectar is available. Butterflies need large blooms to rest upon while feeding. Some double bloom varieties of flowers, such as Marigolds, are not recommended due to the decreased space available for the butterfly to access nectar, if there is any. Some double bloom varieties do not produce any nectar because they are sterile; all their reproductive parts have been genetically altered to produce more petals. 
Tiger Swallowtail and Mexican SunflowerButterflies need nectar throughout the year, not just in the summer. Spring nectar is important for the early butterflies and fall nectar is important for migrating butterflies. It is best to plan your garden so plants are blooming all season long.



Below is a short list of popular nectar plants and their blooming season. These may vary depending on your location.

Spring Summer Fall Winter
Dianthus spp.
Milk Vetch
Bee Balm
Butterfly Bush
Bee Balm
Aster spp.
Joe Pye Weed
Zinnia spp.
Purple Coneflower
Tick Seed
Hibiscus spp.
Lantana spp.


ChaparrelGardens Galore
All gardens are different depending on their location. A flower in Florida may not be as successful in Ohio. A flower in your garden may not be as successful as a flower in your neighbor’s garden. It all depends on the soil, the amount of sun and the care given to the plants. Try experimenting with the many plants available and see who visits and which plants are most popular.

The more butterfly habitats that people can provide to butterflies, the better our environment will be. All over the nation people are destroying wildlife habitats to build houses and businesses and it is the animals that are suffering from lack of food and shelter. By creating safe havens for butterflies, we are not only creating a beautiful place for us to relax, but we are providing food and shelter for butterflies.

International Butterfly Breeders Association. 1998-2009. Butterfly plants for your garden. Accessed 2009 March 9. <>

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