Use herbs to create a beautiful butterfly garden and functioning habitat.
This bee balm flower provides a resting place and sweet nectar for a festive American painted lady.
Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.
Few sights are more relaxing and uplifting than a butterfly gracefully flitting from flower to flower in the garden. For centuries, people have been fascinated by these beautiful yet commonplace creatures. Bearing fanciful names such as painted lady, mourning cloak, silvery blue, and spring azure, butterflies evoke an image of elusive, fleeting beauty that stirs the imagination. Attracting butterflies to your own garden is easy: all you really need is a sunny location where you can plant nectar-producing flowers for adult butterflies and host plants for their larvae.
Butterflies find many common herbs irresistible. You can encourage a wide variety of butterflies—from tiny skippers to magnificent swallowtails—to linger in your herb garden by growing clumps of bright yellow goldenrod, a variety of mints, yarrows, and other delicacies. Since many herbs are excellent food sources for butterflies and both herbs and butterflies share an affinity for open space and sunshine, a well-designed herb garden can be a haven for butterflies. Familiar herbs such as parsley, dill, anise, and fennel are also food plants of the caterpillars of several species. Planting a combination of butterfly-attracting herbs and traditional butterfly namesake plants such as butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) can practically guarantee a constant stream of butterflies to your garden from spring through fall. Buddleia’s fragrant purple, pink, blue, or white flower spikes in late summer attract adult monarchs, mourning cloaks, red admirals, gulf fritillaries, and many other species. Butterfly weed, an orange-flowered milkweed that’s also known as pleurisy root, furnishes nectar to adults; caterpillars feed on the foliage, which then makes them taste bitter to predators.
Butterflies begin life as an egg that has been deposited on or near a host plant. At hatching, a tiny, hungry caterpillar (larva) emerges and begins feeding on the host plant (or in some species, on its own eggshell). As it grows, the caterpillar sheds its skin several times, each time replacing it with a larger one. After three or four weeks, the caterpillar sheds one last time and turns into a chrysalis (pupa). It usually takes one to two weeks for the pupa to make the amazing and complex transformation into a butterfly. When the adult butterfly emerges, it begins searching for food and a mate. Most adults live for two or three weeks, a few live for ten months or longer, but some survive for only a few days.
Butterflies have many predators, including birds, lizards, spiders, flies, and wasps. Their primary survival methods are flight and disguise. Many kinds, such as the buckeye and large wood nymph, have small eyespots near the edges of their wings to confuse predators. Others, such as zebra swallowtails, have conspicuous tails to draw the attack of birds and lizards away from vital body parts. The color and form of many butterflies help them blend in with their surroundings; patches of tan, olive, and gray on the wings of the Arizona powdered skipper, for example, mirror its desert canyon habitat and make it almost invisible. Some butterflies even mimic the appearance of species that are distasteful to predators. Birds avoid viceroys because they resemble the offensive-tasting monarch.
Since many herbs are excellent food sources for butterflies and both herbs and butterflies share an affinity for open space and sunshine, a well-designed herb garden can be a haven for butterflies.
Before designing a butterfly garden of your own, consult a good reference book such as The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies to learn about native butterflies in your area. Finding out what the adults and young prefer to eat will help you determine which plants to include in your garden.
Pick a warm, protected location that is not shaded between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., the hours when most butterflies are active on bright, sunny days; otherwise, you won’t get many winged visitors. Our butterfly garden has a southern exposure with full sun for most of the day. A tall wooden fence on two sides of the garden and a clump of butterfly bushes (which can reach a height of 10 feet here in California) provide shelter from the wind. Above all, select a location where you can easily view your guests. We can watch the garden from our favorite couch in the living room as well as from the deck. We’ve even placed pots of pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) and apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) to lure butterflies to the windowsill.
Butterflies are cold-blooded creatures, and they must warm their wings in the sun before they can fly. Add several flat stones to your garden to encourage them to land and bask. Buckeyes spend quite a bit of time basking on the rocks in our herb garden. Butterflies also need water for drinking and “puddling” (drinking from mud puddles restores nutrients), so either allow mud puddles to form in your garden or place a shallow pan of dirt where your butterflies can gather, and be sure to keep it moist. Occasionally, add a small amount of salt to the pan to provide sodium, which butterflies require.
You can supplement nectar plants with sugar water in nectar feeders. A mix of one part sugar to four parts water works well. Set out a plate of rotting bananas, pears, peaches, or other fruit for mourning cloaks, red admirals, viceroys, and other kinds that enjoy this type of treat. Keep it out of the reach of rodents and other animals, though. After several bananas disappeared overnight, we discovered that we were feeding the opossums, not the butterflies as we had intended!
Butterflies also need protected roosting spots in a garden, in dense brush or under a leaf, where they can rest during the day or close their wings at night. You can build a log pile for this purpose by placing logs crosswise, log-cabin style, to a height of 3 to 5 feet. Place the log pile in the shade and cover the top to protect it from rain. Birds prey on butterflies in all stages of their life cycle, so place bird feeders and baths far away from the log pile and from your butterfly garden.
Planting a variety of herbs and other plants will attract many species of butterflies. Pick plants that bloom in spring, summer, and fall for a constant supply of nectar. Planting masses of a given plant will provide a large area of color and scent and will draw more butterflies to your garden than planting only one or two specimens of that plant. Butterflies especially like strong, sweet scents.
To provide a windscreen, plant tall shrubs, such as buddleia, and large sages, such as autumn sage (Salvia greggii), in the background. The focal point, or middle area, is the ideal place to plant colorful, butterfly-attracting herbs and plants such as goldenrod and butterfly weed. In the front, place low-growing plants such as creeping thyme (Thymus praecox subsp. arcticus) and calendula, or pot marigold. So that they don’t get out of hand, plant invasive herbs such as mints in pots instead of directly in the ground. But don’t be too neat—in fact, consider letting a far corner of your yard get a bit wild.
To ensure a constant supply of nectar-producing blossoms for your winged guests, remove spent flowers and fertilize regularly. And don’t use pesticides in a butterfly garden; even Bacillus thuringiensis, an otherwise relatively benign pesticide favored by organic gardeners, kills caterpillars. With the exception of the cabbage butterfly, butterfly caterpillars are rarely destructive to cultivated crops. If caterpillars or other pests start munching on your herbs too voraciously, pick them off by hand rather than spray them.
Although butterflies consume a wide variety of foods (including fruit juice, rotting fruit, tree sap, carrion, and dung), flower nectar is their main food source. But not all flowers contain nectar. The following list contains herbs that will attract many different varieties to your garden.
Bee balm (Monarda didyma), with its brilliant scarlet flower clusters and citrus fragrance, attracts fritillaries, swallowtails, monarchs, and painted ladies. This herb spreads easily and can become invasive.
Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) produce delicate, globular white flower heads early in summer that attract monarchs, painted ladies, and other species.
Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) bear showy, profuse clusters of bright yellow flowers atop upright stems. They are favored by the monarch, red admiral, American painted lady, viceroy, gray hairstreak, giant swallowtail, and clouded sulfur, among others. Compact varieties such as ‘Baby Gold’ may be less invasive than the species. These late-blooming herbs have a long season and will entice butterflies to the garden from summer to fall.
Lavenders (Lavandula spp.) have several attributes that make them excellent butterfly-attracting herbs: a preference for full sun, a strong scent that attracts butterflies from a distance, and year-round white, pink, lavender, or purple flower spikes. In our garden, they are especially attractive to the cabbage white and many species of skippers.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) attracts the fiery skipper, sachem, European cabbage butterfly, and West Coast lady. Its brilliant orange and yellow blossoms are produced over a long season from summer through fall.
Mints (Mentha spp.) are favorites of the red admiral, West Coast lady, gray hairstreak, and monarch. Spearmint (M. spicata), apple mint (M. suaveolens), and pineapple mint (M. s. ‘Variegata’) are all good choices.
Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum spp.) provide a food source to both butterflies and caterpillars. A profusion of flowers in vivid shades of yellow, orange, and red appear from summer through fall. The blossoms of this herb attract white admiral, painted lady, and cabbage white butterflies.
Sages (Salvia spp.) attract many insects and hummingbirds, as well as butterflies. These herbs offer a wide variety of blossom shapes and colors that appeal to many different species of butterflies. S. azurea attracts monarch butterflies; S. greggii, the fritillary; and S. x superba, the buckeye, red admiral, silvery blue, and common sulfur.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is an easy-to-grow herb whose profuse tiny white or pink flowers are very attractive to red admirals and other butterflies. This herb is rangy, so place it somewhere that it can spread. Butterflies also love red valerian (Centranthus ruber), but it is even more invasive than V. officinalis and so is best in out-of-the-way areas.
Yarrows (Achillea spp.) are a favorite of many butterflies because of their clusters of flat-topped blossoms all summer long. These herbs are vigorous growers and come in pinks, reds, fuchsia, white, and yellows. Although invasive, the wild white A. millefolium is very enticing to butterflies, so you might want to plant a clump in a faraway corner of your yard to lure them in.
In our yard, the flowers of marjoram (Origanum majorana), nutmeg geranium (Pelargonium ‘Nutmeg’), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), thyme (Thymus spp.), and hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) attract several species of butterflies, including the buckeye, painted lady, and cabbage white.
To bring butterflies to your garden and encourage their reproduction, you need to provide food for the caterpillars as well as the adult butterflies. Butterflies normally lay eggs only where food will be available for their young. Caterpillars are much more particular about their diet than adult butterflies: many species feed on plants of only one or two families. Wild plants such as milkweeds, nettles, thistles, and clovers nourish many kinds of caterpillars. The following herbs also serve as host plants for the caterpillars listed.
Anise (Pimpinella anisum)—anise swallowtail
Borage (Borago officinalis)—painted lady, anicia checkerspot
Dill (Anethum graveolens)—black swallowtail
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)—anise swallowtail, black swallowtail
Goldenrods (Solidago spp.)—northern checkerspot, rockslide checkerspot
Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)—monarch, queen
Mints (Mentha spp.)—gray hairstreak, smaller lantana butterfly
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)—anise swallowtail, black swallowtail
Sorrels (Rumex acetosa, R. scutatus)—American copper, lustrous copper, purplish copper
Violets (Viola spp.)—most species of fritillary.
Karin Arrigoni enjoys her herbs and butterflies in San Jose, California, where she is a freelance writer and photographer.
How to Attract Hummingbirds and Butterflies. Dennis, J., and Mathew Tekulsky. San Ramon, California: Ortho, 1991.
The Naturalist’s Garden. Ernst, Ruth Shaw. Old Saybrook, Connecticut: Globe Pequot, 1993.
Natural Gardening. Knopf, Jim, et al. San Francisco: The Nature Company/ Time-Life, 1995.
The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies. Pyle, Robert Mitchell. New York: Knopf, 1992.
Butterflies: How to Identify and Attract Them to Your Garden. Schneck, Marcus. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale, 1990.
The Butterfly Garden. Sedenko, Jerry. New York: Villard, 1991.
Butterfly Gardening: Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden. Xerces Society/Smithsonian Institution. Sierra Club Books, 1990.
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