Butterfly Gardening

Gulf Fritillary feeding on a pink ZinniaGulf Fritillary feeding on a pink Zinnia

We love watching butterflies wherever our travels take us across the country. When at home, we enjoy butterfly gardening, and designing our landscape to provide food and shelter for a variety of butterflies.

The Needs of the Butterfly

Butterflies, like birds and other animals, need food, water, and shelter, the basic necessities of life. In addition, butterflies like direct sunlight, and heat. They are cold blooded creatures, and thus need warm resting places such as flat stones, or bricks.

Butterflies use sunlight to regulate their body temperature. They need sunlight to keep themselves warm, but the outside temperature can also become too hot for them.

A good butterfly garden should provide both sunny places and shady places where butterflies can cool off while they eat. They also need shelter from wind, and inclement weather.

We often provide a shallow pan or plate filled with sand, small rocks, soil and water, and perhaps manure. Butterflies won't typically get their bodies wet in the water, but don't mind getting their feet wet! This process is called "puddling". Butterflies can extract dissolved salts from the mud.

Yellow Zinnia with Buckeye ButterflyYellow Zinnia with Buckeye Butterfly

Food Sources

There are two different functions that plants serve for butterflies. Nectar plants, and host plants on which butterflies can lay their eggs on. Different species of butterfly prefer different flowers. 

Butterflies only lay eggs on the plant that the caterpillar will eventually eat, usually on the underside of leaves. When planning your butterfly garden, consider providing both nectar plants and host plants.

Overripe Fruit

While most butterflies prefer flowers, some don't. Overripe, even fermenting fruit will also draw many butterflies.  We use a shallow pan filled with slices of melon, overripe bananas, peaches, or grapes. Just make sure that you relocate the pan to a safe place at night to avoid curiosity seekers such as raccoons.

We often have Mourning Cloaks, Red Admirals, Question Marks, Red Admirals, Red-Spotted Purples, Zebra Longwings and others enjoying our leftover fruit.

Rocks set among nectar plants provide a great place for butterflies to rest, and warm up!Rocks set among nectar plants provide a great place for butterflies to rest, and warm up!

Puddles and Stones

Male butterflies sometimes gather together at mud puddles. This "puddling" process is a way to sip needed amino acids and salt. We dig shallow depressions in our beds, sink a small saucer or pan, fill it with sand, dirt or small pebbles, and keep it moist and wet.

Our landscape also includes a generous supply of stones and flat rocks. These absorb energy from the sun, and provide a warm basking place for butterflies.

Butterfly Bush

We currently have an assortment of butterfly bushes planted, and all are favorites of the butterflies as well as hummingbirds. Butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) usually bloom from mid-July through frost, producing long 4-5 inch flower spikes which look and smell like miniature lilacs.

Buddleias produce a honey-scented fragrance that lures butterflies to its blooms, and then once there, they find the flowers super-rich in nectar.

Purple Butterfly Bush with Painted LadyPurple Butterfly Bush with Painted Lady

We utilize both full-size and dwarf varieties, in white, purple and reddish colors. Full-size species can grow large in just one season in a mild climate, perhaps 6 feet high and 6 feet in diameter.

Make sure they are planted in well-drained soil, and resist the temptation to overwater them.

The major drawback to butterfly bushes is that they never drop their dead blooms. We cut the dead blooms periodically, and also trim the bushes in areas where space is a limitation. They are often frost proof to about 25 degrees; below that, they will freeze to the ground, and in milder climates spout and grow from their base the following spring.

Some favorite varieties of butterfly bush include Adonis Blue, Purple Emperor, Pink Delight, White Profusion, Nanho Purple, Black Knight and many others.


Lantana

Monarch eggs on MilkweedMonarch eggs on Milkweed

We love lantana, as evidenced by the fact that we have over 45 plants growing now, consisting of several varieties, from yellow to white to red to orange.

Lantana is super heat tolerant, and are typically pest and disease free. It does best in a minimum of 6 hours of direct sun a day. 

Lantanas are perennials in warmer climates, and will flower in full sun or light shade, preferably in well-drained soil. As semi-desert natives, they bloom best when not overfed or over watered. Lantanas are frost proof to about 25 degrees; when they do freeze, in milder climates they will spout from their base in the spring.

Milkweed

Milkweed is a critical food plant for monarch larval or caterpillar stages, which feed almost exclusively on several different species of milkweed (Asclepias).

We often see them loaded with aphids, those yellowish tiny, sap-sucking insects that crowd toward the tops of milkweed. Sometimes we wash them off with a water blast from the hose, but they usually return, and don't damage the plant.

Our Home Landscape

Our landscape features a number of different ecological environments. It is in the country, and backs up to hundreds of acres of forest, with nearby fields and pastures.

Monarch Waystation 8560 Our Monarch Waystation

We've included in our landscape several types of Lantana (45 plants at last count!), Zinnias, Butterfly Bushes, Pentas, Milkweed, Salvia, Batface Cuphea, Verbena, Coreopsis, Fire Bush and other butterfly-friendly plants, annuals and perennials. We also plant lots of dill and fennel seeds to provide food sources for black swallowtails. The woods nearby provide additional butterfly host plants such as Sassafras, Spicebush, Hercules' Club, Sweet Bay and others.

Other landing and feeding spots include (depending on the season) dozens of Azaleas, Pansies, Impatiens, Knockout Roses, Creeping Phlox, Daffodils, Hydrangeas, Portulaca and Gladiolas.

Our landscape also caters to hummingbirds. We often have over 40 Ruby Throat hummingbirds on our feeders at one time during the fall migration southward through Texas. At times we are also blessed with several brightly colored Baltimore Orioles on our feeders!

We are proud to be a Certified Monarch Waystation. By creating a Monarch Waystation you can assist in Monarch butterfly conservation and help the preservation of the species.

Read more about how to register your Monarch waystation at MonarchWatch.org

 

Butterfly Garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TexasButterfly Garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Learning from Public Butterfly Gardens

Another way to learn about gardening is to visit public butterfly gardens, parks and nurseries in your area.

Seeing what attracts butterflies at various gardens can help you plan and execute your butterfly garden. Be sure to read plant tags and identification markers for information about sun and shade requirements, soil, bloom times and other environmental needs of the plant.

Often docents or volunteers are available to give you their personal experiences and knowledge about various species that grow best in your local area.

View of the gardens at the Charlotte Rhoades Park Butterfly Garden in Southwest Harbor, Maine
View of the gardens at the Charlotte Rhoades Park Butterfly Garden
Flowers in bloom at the Charlotte Rhoades Park Butterfly Garden
Flowers in bloom at the Charlotte Rhoades Park Butterfly Garden
Square-bud Primrose flowers and identification sign. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Square-bud Primrose flowers and identification sign. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
All Passion Vines are not purple ... here a beautiful red Passiflora at Butterfly World in Florida
Red Passion Vine

 


Butterfly Garden Photographs

Shown below are photos of several of the flowers that are popular in butterfly gardens ... all favorites of butterflies!

Zinnia

Zinnia, hosting a swallowtail butterfly

Skipper on Orange Zinnia

Skipper on Orange Zinnia

Zinnia hosting a Gulf Fritillary

Gulf Frittilary Butterfly (wings open) on Zinnia in Texas

Zinnia

Gulf Frittilary Butterfly (wings closed) on Zinnia in Texas

Lantana

Lantana in a butterfly garden

Lantana

Monarch Butterfly on Lantana

Lantana

Close-up view of flowers on lantana

Lantana

Close-up view of flowers on lantana

"Majestic Giant" Pansy

White Majestic Giant Pansy blooming in the spring

Butterfly Bush hosting a Buckeye Butterfly

Buckeye Butterfly on Butterfly Bush

Butterfly Bush

Painted Lady Butterfly on Butterfly Bush

Butterfly Bush

Butterfly Bush

Butterfly Bush, with a feeding Hummingbird Moth

read more about the Hummingbird Moth

Hummingbird Moth on Butterfly Bush

White Butterfly Bush

White Butterfly Bush

Hydrangea hosting a Buckeye Butterfly

Hydrangea hosting a Buckeye Butterfly

Impatiens

Orange Impatiens in a butterfly garden

Dahlias

Buckeye Butterfly on Red Dahlia

Pink Penta

Penta, a favorite of butterfly gardeners in the south

White Penta

Penta, a favorite of butterfly gardeners in the south

Fire Bush

Flowers are bright orange-red, in clusters. Attracts both butterflies and hummingbirds. Sun exposure.

Fire Bush

Chinese Hibiscus

Chinese Hibiscus

Dill

Dill ... a favorite host plant for the Black Swallowtail caterpillar

Dill

Black Swallowtail Caterpillar eating Dill

Orange Marigold and Pearl Crescent

Orange Marigold hosting a Pearl Crescent butterfly

Purple Verbena

Irresistible to swallowtails

Purple Verbena

Perwinkles

Perwinkles

Dianthus
Attracts the Giant Swallowtail, Tiger Swallowtail, and others

Dianthus

Milkweed

Host plant for Monarch butterflies

Milkweed

Bronze Fennel

Host plant for Black Swallowtail butterflies

Bronze Fennel

Dill

Host plant for Black Swallowtail butterflies

Black Swallowtail eggs on dill

Passion Vine

Attracts Gulf Fritillary, Variegated Fritillary, Zebra Longwing, Cloudless Sulphur, Gray Hairstreak, and others

Passion Vine