Butterflies Among the Herbs

Lure these jewel-like creatures to the garden with herbs that nourish and protect.


Photography by Rick Wetherbee

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Of all nature’s wonders, butterflies grace the garden like no other. The same herbs that delight and satisfy our senses also bring butterflies to our gardens.

More than 750 butterfly species live in the United States and Canada, and some reside in your area. But you won’t see butterflies in a barren yard. Like most wildlife, butterflies need food, shelter and a place to lay their eggs and feed their offspring. Herbs can become their nectar-rich food source. Many herbs also serve as host plants on which butterflies lay their eggs, providing edibles once the eggs hatch into caterpillars, eventually to emerge as the beautiful winged adult we admire.

Planning a butterfly garden

A large garden offers an enormous diversity of colorful, nectar-rich flowers and host plants to lure butterflies, but you can provide a pesticide-free food source, shelter and a place for butterflies to lay their eggs in a relatively small space. However, even the best of garden designs can go awry if you don’t know which butterfly species reside in your area. For example, passionflowers (Passiflora spp.) are a favored host plant of the gulf fritillary. The hardy maypop passionflower (P. incarnata), a native of the eastern United States, can even survive temperatures as low as -10 degrees. Just don’t expect the gulf fritillary to come calling unless you live in the Southeast or western part of the country.

Many resources are available to help you learn about local butterfly species, including your cooperative extension agent, regional guidebooks or butterfly Internet sources including the NPWRC web site (www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/lepid/bflyusa/bflyusa.htm). With myriad herbs to choose from, knowing the butterfly species common to your area will help in selecting which herbs to grow—especially important where space is limited.

A garden featuring various nectar-producing host and shelter plants arranged at varying heights will draw a larger variety of butterflies than single-story plants of the same size. For example, taller bushes and vines such as the glossy abelia (Abelia ¥grandiflora), viburnum (Viburnum spp.) and honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) might serve as a backdrop for the shorter gay feather (Liatris spp.), borage (Borago officinalis) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Or you might plant a graduated pyramid: tall, willowy butterfly bushes (Buddleja davidii) in the middle, surrounded by nicotianas, black-eyed Susans and pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), and bordered by yarrow with shorter varieties of asters and catmint (Nepeta cataria). Fill the fringes with low-growing thymes, violas and sedums.

Herbs with tubular-shaped flowers like thorn apple (Datura spp.) and foxglove (Digitalis spp.) are attractive to humans, but not to butterflies. The length of a butterfly’s tongue determines the type of flower it can dine on. Moths, which usually have longer tongues than butterflies, can draw nectar from long, slender flowers. Butterflies are stuck with the shorter lunches.

How Sweet It Is

Butterflies are attracted by varying degrees to a flower’s color, shape or smell, but the biggest draw is nectar. These insects taste with their feet, which have special receptors for sweetness. When those receptors find a nectar-laden treasure, they uncoil their tubular tongues (called proboscises) and enjoy their dinner through their very own straw. Once a butterfly discovers its favorite flowers, it will return to that location again and again.

An abundance of flowering herbs will invite butterflies to come explore. Maintain the attraction by growing various herbs that bloom at different times. Include spring bloomers such as pinks, lilac (Syringa spp.), phlox and dame’s-rocket (Hesperis matronalis); span the warm-weather season with sunflowers, oregano, echinacea, goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and coreopsis; then wrap up the season’s end with fall flowers such as aster, chrysanthemum and sedum.

While many herbs are ideal for the butterfly garden, not every herb is successful at attracting a variety of butterflies. Composites—which have a circle of ray petals around a pollen-laden center—are great for the masses, providing an excellent all-around nectar source for many butterflies. Herbs with composite flowers include echinacea, calendula (Calendula officinalis), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), chamomile, yarrow, sunflowers and goldenrod, as well as asters, zinnias, African daisies (Osteospermum spp.) and chrysanthemums

Caterpillar Cafeteria

With a season-long smorgasbord of flowering herbs to keep butterflies content, they may want to stay on and start a family. Butterflies are mostly host specific. In other words, each species seeks out a specific plant on which to lay its eggs that will feed its caterpillars.

Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed (Asclepias spp.), while the pearl crescent and field crescent dine primarily on asters. Fritillaries adore violets, while red admirals feast mainly on nettles. Umbelliferous plants—among them are fennel, dill, caraway, anise, cilantro and parsley—are shared by the anise swallowtail and black swallowtail alike. Other caterpillar host plants and trees include sunflowers, birches, willows, wild plum, ash, penstemons, vetch, passion vine and grasses.

Keep in mind that these host plants will be nibbled on— a good thing in the butterfly garden. Think of it as a sacrifice to new life. Most caterpillars depend on only one or two host plants anyway (here’s where knowing the butterfly species common to your area comes in handy), so if you plant extra you probably won’t notice the damage. You’ll certainly take note of the newly emerged butterflies.

Love at First Site

Situate your butterfly garden in a sheltered area that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight daily. For cold-blooded creatures such as butterflies this is especially important during cooler springtime weather. At 60 degrees they begin to flutter and launch their colorful flight, painting your garden with a living tapestry of stripes and circles. Their flight improves as the warm sun dries their wings. You may notice them basking in the sun, absorbing the heat with outstretched wings. Place large rocks throughout your garden, providing a solar-heated sunbathing area. A windbreak of trees or shrubs will give butterflies a place to hide from the elements and a roost at night. (A raindrop on a butterfly is like a barrel of water poured on your head.) Let fallen leaves, pieces of bark and rocks stay on the ground to provide shelter. A log pile stacked crosswise also creates a safe haven with its many open nooks and crannies.

Male butterflies engage in a behavior called “puddling,” which transfers beneficial nutrients that enhance the viability of the female’s eggs. You can create an artificial puddle by burying a bucket filled with wet sand or soil, then placing a few sticks or rocks on top of the sand as butterfly perches. Be sure to refill the bucket when it runs dry.

My herb garden is frequented by a captivating clan of butterflies, from painted ladies, anise swallowtails and fritillaries to red admirals and skippers. Ever since I was a child watching skippers on a lantana bush bordering our front walk, I have enjoyed watching these miracles of nature, a dependable, remarkable part of my world.

Ten terrific butterfly herbs

The following herbs will draw many species of butterflies; the species listed here are only the most common. * st= swallowtails; bf = brushfoots; wh = whites; su = sulphurs;hs = hairstreaks; bl = blues; cp = coppers; pl = painted ladies; sk = skippers.

Calendulas (Calendula officinalis): also known as pot marigold; grow 15 to 30 inches tall; bloom during the cool season—late fall through spring in mild winter areas, summer in colder climates—in full sun and well-drained soil; *attract su, bf, st, sk.

Bee balms (Monarda spp.): Zones 3–9; summer-blooming hardy perennials growing 2 to 4 feet tall in rich, moist soil in full sun to light shade; *attract st, bf, su, sk, pl.

Butterfly bushes (Buddleja davidii): Zones 5–9; deciduous shrubs growing 8 to 15 feet in height; bloom in summer and fall in full sun and average soil; *attract st, wh, su, bf, pl.

Pinks (Dianthus spp.): Zones 3–9; perennials, biennials and annuals growing from 6 inches to 3 feet; bloom in late spring to early autumn (depending on species), in full sun to light shade in well-drained soil; *attract su, bf, st, sk, pl.

Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea): Zones 3–10; sturdy, branching perennials growing 3 to 4 feet tall; heat-tolerant; bloom in summer and fall in rich, well-drained soil in full sun to light shade; *attract st, wh, su, bf, sk, pl.

Lavenders (Lavandula spp.): Zones 5–10; fragrant shrubs growing to 3 feet, drought-tolerant; bloom during summer in average, well-drained soil in full sun; *attract bf, hs, st, su, sk, pl.

Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.): Zones 3–10; clump-forming perennials growing 1 to 2 feet tall; bloom in summer and fall in full sun; water needs vary by species; *attract bf, st, cp, hs, bl, su, pl.

Sages (Salvia spp.): Zones 3–10; mounded to shrubby perennials and annuals growing 1 to 4 feet tall; bloom in summer and fall in average, well-drained soil in full sun; *attract st, bf, wh, su, sk, pl.

Thymes (Thymus spp.): Zones 5–9; mat-forming to sub-shrub perennials; bloom in spring and early summer in average, well-drained soil in full to light shade; *attract st, sk, hs, pl.

Yarrows (Achillea spp.): Zones 3–9; mat-forming to 4-foot-tall perennials; bloom in spring and summer in full sun with little to moderate water; *attract st, bf, su, pl. ø

Kris Wetherbee is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. She lives in the hills of western Oregon with her husband, photographer Rick Wetherbee and butterflies by the score.