Butterflies across the nation are losing their habitat, but home gardeners can do a lot to help preserve the diversity of these lovely creatures. “We have a lot of habitat in this country, but we are losing it at a rapid pace,” says Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, a nonprofit educational outreach program that works to preserve and encourage monarch butterfly habitats. “Development consumes 6,000 acres a day, a loss of 2.2 million acres per year. The overuse of herbicides is turning diverse areas that support monarchs, pollinators and other wildlife into grass-filled landscapes that support few species.”
In response to an increasing awareness of habitat destruction, many people have begun to preserve and restore natural areas so they might serve as appropriate homes for wildlife. You can join the fun by making your yard more butterfly-friendly and enjoy the many additional benefits these pretty pollinators bring.
Beauty, Butterflies and a Whole Lot More
The butterfly gardener reaps many rewards. If you plant a butterfly garden where there used to be lawn, you’ll reduce mowing, which translates to less work, less water use, and less air and noise pollution. Butterflies like a variety of plants, so creating a garden for them can add incredible biological diversity—and beauty—to your yard. That diversity is likely to reduce populations of pest insects by making it harder for them to find their specific host plants. Plus, butterflies themselves will become an important part of your micro-ecosystem, pollinating many plants. The butterflies in your region will be adapted to its native plants, and that’s good news for you, too. Plants that are already well-suited to grow in a particular location and climate require less maintenance, less water and less fertilizer.
The first step in creating a butterfly garden is research. Find out what butterflies live near you so you can include the plants they need for food. The best way to start is to look for butterflies around your proposed garden, in your neighbors’ yards, or in nearby parks, natural areas, roadsides or gardens. Take note of the species you see. (For a list of butterfly guidebooks, visit the Monarch Watch's reading room.) You can also find out about regional species by talking to your local county extension office (Google your county name and “extension office”), the Xerces Society, the North American Butterfly Association and conservation organizations in your region.
Growing Plants that Attract Butterflies
Your butterfly garden can be any size, from a window box to a portion of your yard to a wild area on your lot. You can include native plants, cultivated species or both. Butterflies feed on nectar, and planting a wide range of nectar plants (see “Sweet Nectar” in this article) is the best strategy for attracting many species. Include flowers that bloom at different times so your garden provides nectar from spring through autumn. Female butterflies will only lay eggs on the specific plants larvae require; be sure to include larval host plants (find a list, organized by butterfly, at Monarch Watch's butterfly gardening page) if you want to see caterpillars transform into butterflies in your garden. Remember, the purpose of these plants is to serve as food for caterpillars—eaten leaves are good signs of your garden’s health.
As you plant, place short plants in front and tall ones in back, and clump them by species and color. As butterflies search for food, they see large splashes of color more easily than individual flowers. Butterflies are particularly attracted to red, orange, yellow and purple flowers. Avoid big flowers bred for their size; they are often poor nectar sources. Watch the butterflies, record their preferences and plant more of the popular blooms next year.
Butterflies will linger longer if you provide shelter and sun. Properly placed trees and shrubs shelter your garden from wind. If your garden is small, consider a vine-covered arbor. Sun is a necessity for the butterfly garden. Butterflies are cold-blooded and often start their day by warming their bodies in the sun. Locate your garden where it will receive at least six hours of sunlight each day, and include a spot—such as large rocks or exposed soil—where sunlight will reach the ground early in the day.
As you maintain your garden, do not use pesticides or insecticides on or near your garden. Insecticides kill butterflies. Even if you spray nearby, the insecticide may drift into your butterfly garden. Planting a diversity of species will keep pest levels down, and avoiding insecticides allows the populations of natural predators to increase, helping reduce the number of unwanted pests.
Enjoy Your Butterfly Garden
Butterflies are active during the warm parts of the day, and they have many interesting behaviors. After rain, for example, you might see them “puddling,” or sucking fluids from wet soil to obtain water and salts. Males are territorial, chasing other males away and trying to attract females, and females often have elaborate routines for choosing where to lay their eggs. With a pair of binoculars, a good field guide and a variety of blooming flowers, you can sit in your yard on a sunny day and, with practice, identify many butterfly species. Are you missing that one species you really want to see? Next year, include its favorite plants in your garden. Butterflies don’t pay much attention to people, so you can sit nearby and watch without disturbing them. If you wear bright colors, they may even mistake you for a nectar source and visit you up close!
Adapted from Monarch Watch and North American Butterfly Association. Monarch Watch is a nonprofit educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas that focuses on the monarch butterfly, its habitat and its spectacular fall migration. The North American Butterfly Association is a membership-based nonprofit with regional chapters working to increase public enjoyment and conservation of butterflies.
Choose a wide variety of plants that bloom in different seasons to keep butterflies in your garden from spring through fall.
These are some of Monarch Watch’s favorite plants that attract butterflies. See the full chart at Monarch Watch's plants page.
Appearance: 2 to 3 feet tall with deep violet blue flower spikes and fragrant foliage
Bloom Period: Summer in Zones 6 to 9
Appearance: 3 to 5 feet high with spiky, bright red flowers
Bloom Period: Summer in Zones 3 to 8
Blue Mist Spirea
Appearance: Gray-green foliage with deep blue blooms; 2 to 3 feet tall
Bloom Period: Late summer in Zones 5 to 9
Appearance: 4- to 6-foot shrub with flower-covered stems; available in numerous colors
Bloom Period: Midsummer to midfall in Zones 5 to 9
Appearance: 2 to 4 feet tall with deep pink clusters of fragrant flowers
Bloom Period: Summer in Zones 4 to 9
False Blue Indigo
Appearance: 3 to 4 feet tall with spikes of pea-shaped purple flowers
Bloom Period: Spring to early summer in Zones 4 to 8
Appearance: 4- to 6-foot stems with delicate yellow flowers
Bloom Period: Summer in Zones 4 to 9
Joe Pye Weed
Appearance: 4 to 6 feet tall with huge mauve flower clusters atop wine-red stems
Bloom Period: Summer through early fall in Zones 4 to 8
Appearance: Bright orange daisylike flower heads; 4 to 6 feet tall
Bloom Period: Summer through first frost in Zones 5 to 10
New England Aster
Appearance: Compact at 1 to 2 feet with thick, vivid purple flowers
Bloom Period: Late summer to fall in Zones 3 to 8
Appearance: 12 to 15 inches high with a profusion of sky-blue flowers
Bloom Period: Summer through fall in Zones 5 to 8
Appearance: Clusters of upturned pink flowers; 3 to 4 feet tall
Bloom Period: Summer in Zones 3 to 9
Appearance: 3 to 5 feet tall with large leaves and flower stalks with daisylike flowers
Bloom Period: Early fall to first frost in Zones 4 to 8
White Cloud Calamint
Appearance: Airy racemes of tiny white flowers; 1 to 2 feet tall
Bloom Period: Summer through first frost in Zones 5 to 9
Appearance: Fine-textured foliage and clusters of white flowers; 1 to 3 feet tall
Bloom Period: Summer in Zones 4 to 8
Appearance: 3 to 4 feet tall with bright yellow daisylike flowers
Bloom Period: Early to midfall in Zones 6 to 9