Butterflies Among the Herbs

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A garden of flowering herbs is sure to attract butterflies to feast and play.
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Swallowtails, brushfoots, sulphurs and painted ladies flit about yarrow blooms in spring and summer.

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

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

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

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

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,

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,

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

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