The Herbal Butterfly Garden

Use herbs to create a beautiful butterfly garden and functioning habitat.

| April/May 1997

  • This bee balm flower provides a resting place and sweet nectar for a festive American painted lady.
    Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.
  • The gulf fritillary is attracted to the profusion of ­fuchsia-colored blossoms on ­autumn sage.
    Photograph by Karin Arrigoni
  • A cabbage white alights on a ­purple spike of lavender.
    Photograph by Karin Arrigoni
  • The butterfly bush lures a wide assortment of butterflies, including this sprightly skipper.
    Photograph by Karin Arrigoni
  • The folded-wing skipper, a frequent visitor to the herb garden, is especially fond of pineapple mint.
    Photograph by Karin Arrigoni
  • This American painted lady feasts on a flowering head of garlic chives.
    Photograph by Karin Arrigoni

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.

The life of a butterfly

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.

Customize 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.

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