Butterflies fluttering around the garden are a beautiful symbol of summer. Unfortunately, there have been sharp declines in different butterfly species, due to habitat loss, pollution and invasive plants. That matters because these flying insects aren’t just pretty — they are important plant pollinators and valuable food for birds and other insects.
Fortunately, you can help. By following a few simple gardening tips and by growing plants that attract butterflies, you can support these beautiful critters for future generations to enjoy.
Photo via Bill Gracey/Flickr Creative Commons
What to plant?
Butterflies have very specific needs for food, based on their life stage. Larvae depend on certain plants, for instance, while the adults may later feed on different parts of various plants.
Some advice on how to attract butterflies…
- Go native: “Many butterflies and native flowering plants depend on each other for survival and reproduction,” reports the National Wildlife Federation. That’s why planting native plants is always a good idea. Look for native plants specific to your region for best results.
Photo via e3000/Flickr Creative Commons
- Flower types: Butterflies like flat or clustered blossoms in purple, pink, red, orange or yellow colors, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Select flowers that bloom at different types, so there are continuous blossoms for butterflies to enjoy. Some flower examples are asters, bee balm, calendula, lupine, verbena and phlox.
- Butterfly bush: It’s true that butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.) attracts plenty of the winged insects. But keep in mind that in some areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, butterfly bush has been declared a noxious weed and should be avoided.
- Feed caterpillars: It’s important to grow host plants that caterpillars eat, so they will stay around in your garden when they eventually become butterflies. For instance, to attract viceroys, try planting willows, cottonwoods and aspens. For silver-spotted skipper, grow wisteria.
Swallowtail photo by SFAJane/Flickr Creative Commons
Other butterfly gardening tips
- Think sun: Butterflies only drink nectar from plants grown in full sun, or at least 6 hours of sun daily. The insects use the sun to navigate and warm their wings for flight. For best results, give butterflies a sunny garden that’s sheltered from the wind.
- Provide support: Create butterfly-friendly areas in your garden by leaving flat stones for them to rest in the sun. A shallow pan with moist wet sand can be buried in the garden soil to provide a place for butterflies to drink water and extract minerals.
- Forget chemicals: Accept a little imperfection in the garden, and avoid using pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, which have chemicals that kill caterpillars and butterflies.
Monarch photo via Puzzler4879/Flickr Creative Commons
No article about attracting butterflies to the garden would be complete without mentioning the monarch butterfly, which needs special attention right now.
According to Xerces, the monarch butterfly has declined by 90 percent from its 20-year average since the mid-1990s. “If monarchs were people, that would be like losing every living person in the United States except those in Florida and Ohio,” according to this non-profit organization studying this issue.
To help save monarchs, start growing milkweed in your garden. Monarchs need milkweed to survive. It’s the only plant that the caterpillars eat, and the butterflies need milkweed to lay eggs. Make sure you grow a milkweed that’s specific for your growing area.
Learn more about monarchs, milkweed and how you can help by visiting Monarch Joint Venture.
For other helpful advice about monarchs and other butterflies, visit National Wildlife Federation.
You might also enjoy our post on attracting pollinators to your garden.