If your garden has seemed different in recent years—that familiar buzz much quieter, the air less colorful and alive—it’s probably not your imagination. Bee, butterfly, and bat populations face alarming declines worldwide. That’s a scary thought, considering that the majority of the crops we eat rely on these (formerly) frequent visitors.
It’s true that no one person can single-handedly restore the monarch butterfly, cure bat-killing fungus, reverse the honeybees’ downward spiral—and save agriculture as we know it. But as we work on the larger issues at play, like climate change and widespread pesticide use, pollinators need safe spaces in order to feed and find mates. That’s where you come in. Make your own yard a pollinator-friendly pit stop with a few simple fixes.
- Tell the EPA to protect bees from toxic pesticides and save our food supply
- 10 plants for butterflies
- How to Start a Butterfly Garden
- Butterfly Gardening – Using Butterfly Garden Plants
- Starting Butterfly Gardening
- List of Butterfly Garden Plants
1. Try leave-it-alone gardening.
Stop obsessing over perfectly planted flower beds and weed-free lawns. “Think about your garden as a habitat for wildlife rather than approaching it as ‘I need a nice and tidy manicured lawn,’ ” says Sylvia Fallon, a senior scientist with NRDC’s Land and Wildlife program.
Lawns and gardens that provide food, nutrition, and shelter for pollinators and other critters can still be gorgeous. Instead of weeding out natural greenery, let your lawn go. (Bees need clover!) Instead of wiping a plot clean to make a new garden bed from scratch, leave wild spaces—especially meadows of wildflowers—as they are.
2. Go native.
Local plants match the needs of nearby pollinators. Those modern hybrids you find at plant nurseries, on the other hand, may have pollen, nectar, and even scent bred out of them. A little research into your local climate and soil will reveal which plants work best in your yard. For more on what is considered native (sage) and what is not (butterfly bush), check out the Xerces Society.
3. Mix it up.
To please your bees and your butterflies, opt for plants of all shapes and colors that will bloom from early spring to late fall. Planting clumps, rather than individual flowers or plants, will also make it easier for pollinators to find you.
Throw in some larval host plants to attract the caterpillars that turn into colorful butterflies, and don’t forget night-blooming flowers for bats. While bats mainly pollinate plants in desert climates (like the agave in the Southwest), they’re useful everywhere because they eat insects, including crop pests. Consider these nocturnal visitors organic pest control.
4. Stop spraying pesticides.
It’s amazing how many fans of organic food willingly use the dangerous chemicals they try to avoid in the grocery store on their home gardens. The number one threat to pollinators—and the chemicals you should avoid over all others—is neonicotinoid (or neonic) pesticides. Not only are they most toxic to bees, butterflies, and other insects, but they’re also systemic. When applied, these poisons make their way throughout the entire plant—including the pollen and nectar.
Consider asking your neighbors to ditch pesticides, too. And see if you can collectively work on town and county ordinances to further reduce their use. It’s not as pie-in-the-sky as it might sound; many places have banned spraying that’s not related to public-health purposes, especially for private lawns.
5. Shop smart.
A 2014 report by the nonprofit group Friends of the Earth and several other organizations revealed that 51 percent of plant samples purchased at top garden stores in the United States and Canada contained neonicotinoids. Buy only plants or seeds that aren’t pretreated with pesticides. And read the fine print: If a plant is marked “protected,” that may mean it’s chemically treated.
Smaller nurseries that specialize in organic gardening will likely be your best bet. And remember, supply equals demand: The more you ask for pollinator-safe plants, the more likely stores will start stocking them.
6. Plant milkweed.
In 1997, more than 1 billion monarch butterflies were recorded during their annual migration from the United States to Mexico for the winter; now that number is less than 57 million. “That’s more than a 90 percent decline in a short period of time, largely due to changes we have made in our agricultural practices,” says Fallon.
One big change is the nationwide loss of milkweed crops—monarchs’ only food source and the plant on which they lay their eggs. “The introduction of genetically engineered crops means milkweed is no longer in agricultural fields,” says Fallon. “They have effectively eliminated milkweed from large swaths of what were breeding grounds in the corn belt. With that decline has been a huge decline in population.”
Do your part to recoup those numbers by planting milkweed from seeds or cuttings. You’ll be doubly rewarded with its heavenly full-bloom scent drifting through your windows.
7. Just add water.
Some experts say shallow pools will attract pollinators, especially if you’re in a dry climate or there hasn’t been much morning dew on your grass. If you already have a birdbath, you’re good to go. Provide some pebbles or rocks as “islands” in the dish so pollinators—especially small bees—won’t drown.
Of course, standing water can also attract an unwanted backyard pest: the mosquito. Make sure you empty and refill dishes frequently to keep the H2O fresh.
8. Extra credit: Become a landlord.
Revisit how you approach a fallen tree or a dead limb. It’s not an eyesore; it’s a potential bee nest! Drill bee-inviting holes in that dead wood, build nest blocks, or simply buy a premade bee box.
You can also purchase prefab roost modules (or make your own) for bats as well. Roost modules are meant to host maternity colonies during summer months; this keeps bats warm enough to avoid contracting white nose syndrome. The fungus, responsible for killing millions in North America, can’t survive temperatures above 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
Make sure any pollinator condos you do build are made from nontoxic wood. And display your creations proudly—perhaps they’ll be a conversation starter and educational tool for neighbors or visitors.
Tell the EPA to protect bees from toxic pesticides and save our food supply
Non-native tropical milkweed fuels monarchs on their journey through southern states, but when cooler weather hits, the plant can bring parasites and starvation. Here’s what butterfly-loving southerners can do.
Natural solutions like mulch, cover crops, vinegar, and a little elbow grease will help keep the chemicals out of your garden—and your body.
NRDC in Action
NRDC joins with Monarch Watch to distribute free milkweed plants to schools across the country and turn students into butterfly gardeners.
On the Front Lines
Bees keep dying at record rates, putting our food supply at serious risk. Here’s how you can help take the sting out.
As NRDC’s first-ever artist-in-residence, Jenny Kendler creates interactive sculptures that invite viewers to remember their place in the natural order.
To make sure that that kale is good for you and the environment, you should really get to know it better.
When hungry bears and Montana’s honey industry collide, apiarists and conservationists come together to avoid a sticky situation.
Famous for their elegant colors and transcontinental feats of migration, these beloved pollinators are also in free fall, as habitat loss and heavy use of herbicides jeopardize their future.
Rising CO2 levels could upset the delicate relationship between the butterflies and their parasites.
It would boost our dependence on pesticides, seed costs for small farmers, grocery bills for American families, and population losses for butterflies and bees.
Situated along the monarch’s migration corridor, the Sooner State is coming up with creative ways to save the imperiled pollinators.
10 plants for butterflies
Around 10 species of butterfly are likely to visit gardens, including the colourful small tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral. Sadly, numbers of many butterflies are declining. According to a Butterfly Conservation report published in 2015, The State of Britain’s Butterflies, three quarters of UK butterflies have shown a 10-year decrease in either their distribution or population levels.
Do your bit for butterflies by making them welcome in your garden. Adults feed on nectar, and can be seen nectaring on flat, daisy-like blooms as well as plants with long, tubular flowers. The more of these you can grow in your garden, the better.
Butterfly caterpillars feed on leaves and flower buds of so-called ‘caterpillar food plants’. Caterpillars of some of the most colourful butterflies feed on nettles. The brimstone feeds on common buckthorn and sea buckthorn. Discover more caterpillar food plants.
- Best shrubs for butterflies
- Plants for late summer nectar
- Create a mini wildflower meadow
Discover 10 plants that butterflies will love, below.
One of the best-known nectar flowers for adult butterflies, Buddleja davidii produces blooms over a number of weeks between summer and autumn. Grow a few varieties to extend the flowering season.
Centranthus ruber performs best in poorer, dry or chalky soils, where it forms a tidy, compact plant and won’t be overwhelmed by other, stronger plants. It often flowers early and continues well into midsummer.
Tall, with lots of purple flowers on stiff, wiry stems, Verbena bonariensis can be grown through other plants or in a border on its own. It flowers late in the season and is extremely rich in nectar.
Always go for the old-fashioned pink form of Hylotelephium spectabile, which produces the most nectar when it flowers in autumn. Red varieties tend to be poor in comparison.
As well as being a reliable evergreen shrub, hebes attracts a range of insects – in particular bees and butterflies.
Outdoors, Origanum vulgare is best grown as an annual, as it isn’t reliably hardy in the UK. The delicate, pink flowers are a treat for butterflies, as well as bees. Plus, the leaves make a delicious addition to dishes.
If you’ve created an area for wildflowers in your garden, then Centaurea nigra is a must-have. The bright, violet flowers will attract a range of butterflies, including the common blue and meadow brown.
Tough and dependable, Eupatorium cannabinum are statuesque plants that enjoy growing in damp areas including riverbanks and wet grasslands or woodlands. The icy-pink flowers will attract red admirals and commas, among others.
Like knapweed, field scabious (Knautia arvensis) is another plant that will pack meadows with colour. There are plenty of similar flowers to try too, including the small scabious and knautia, all of which are popular with butterflies.
Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’
If regularly deadheaded, ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ can be relied upon to flower from spring and into autumn, providing nectar for butterflies both early and late in the year.
Kate Bradbury says
Don’t forget food for their caterpillars. Nettles, hops, lady’s smock, holly, ivy and meadow grasses provide food for the caterpillars of a wide range of butterfly species.
How to Start a Butterfly Garden
How to Start a Butterfly Garden
Butterfly Garden in Connecticut
Beginning a butterfly garden can be as simple as choosing flowering plants that will invite adult butterflies to your garden to feed. But if you want to create a butterfly garden that will act as a sanctuary, attracting a wide variety of butterflies while also providing a place where butterflies can grow and multiply, you will first need some simple planning. By considering which plants to grow and evaluating your garden site, you can plant a butterfly garden that will help with the creation of more butterflies.
Many flowering plants will attract butterflies to your location, but not all flowers are created equally in the compound eyes of a butterfly. Selecting plants that will feed butterflies while also encouraging them to stick around for a while, laying eggs and creating a new generation of butterflies, is your goal. To do this, you will need to choose plants that fall into two groups: nectar plants that will provide adult butterflies with energy and caterpillar food plants that will feed caterpillars. With careful selection from these two groups, your garden will provide for the entire life cycle of butterflies.
Choosing Nectar Plants
Eastern Purple Coneflower
While shopping for garden plants, you will encounter many plants labeled “butterfly friendly.” These labels are most likely telling the truth and if you choose plants labeled for butterfly gardens, they will attract butterflies. Most likely, though, these plants are nectar plants, marketed for their bright blooms, and will not provide for the caterpillar stage of a butterfly’s life. Although many flowering plants provide nectar to butterflies, it is worth doing a little research to find you what plants attract the most butterflies in your area. Just as growing conditions vary by location, so do the popularity of butterfly nectar plants. Some plants will serve as both nectar and caterpillar food plants and it may be worth searching out some of these double duty offerings.
Choosing Caterpillar Food Plants
The relationship between butterflies, caterpillars and the plants they use for food is not a casual one. It is a relationship created over thousands of years as flowering plants developed along side insects. As a result of this long development, caterpillars will use only certain plants for food. At the same time, butterflies are equally picky about what plants they will select to lay their eggs on. In order to encourage caterpillars in the garden, butterfly gardeners need only select the plants that are preferred by caterpillars in their location. Nature and chemistry will take care of the rest.
Choosing Plants for Butterflies Common to Your Region
To determine which butterflies and caterpillars may arrive in your garden, visit local butterfly gardens in your region or talk to other butterfly gardeners. If such opportunities do not exist, many butterfly field guides also provide information about which butterflies are likely to visit gardens and what food sources they prefer. Once you have identified butterflies that are most likely to visit your garden, select their preferred caterpillar food plants along with nectar plants that are recommended for your growing area.
Garden Site Selection
New Jersey Butterfly Garden
Planting a wide range of nectar and host plants is the best strategy for attracting the largest number of butterfly species. Butterflies may be attracted to the garden by a large patch of bright flowers, but they will linger longer if there are also areas that provide shelter, water, sun and a diverse group of plants that imitate the way plants grow in the wild.
in the garden results from choosing plants of different types, such as shrubs, trees, perennials, and even vines. In choosing plants that grow to different heights, with a variety of flower shapes and colors that have different bloom times, you will be creating a garden that is attractive to a wide range of butterflies. Grouping more than one plant of each type together will help to unify the look of the garden and will lessen the distance that nectaring butterflies have to travel. If your garden is small and has no room for trees or shrubs, consider an arbor covered with vines to create height. There are many vines to choose from that act as nectar or caterpillar food plants.
While shrubs and trees can create unnecessary shade, they do provide an important feature in the butterfly garden. Properly placed, trees and shrubs will shelter your garden from wind, which makes it easier for butterflies to explore your location. Additionally, trees and shrubs give valuable shelter where butterflies can roost at night or hide from predators. Keep in mind that many shrubs and trees are also caterpillar food plants!
is needed by butterflies, but not very much. Nectar, dew, and tree sap provide butterflies with moisture but puddles and moist dirt or sand are also popular water sources. Puddling stations can be as simple as a damp area of ground covered with sand. Placed where they are easily viewed and sheltered from the wind, puddling stations are thought to provide dissolved salts in addition to water.
is essential for the butterfly garden. Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that often start their day by warming their bodies in the sun. Be sure to include a spot in the garden where sunlight will reach the ground early in the day. Large rocks, exposed soil, or even pavement are all surfaces that will warm up in morning sunlight. Try to locate your garden where it will receive at least six hours of direct sunlight each day.
Once you have combined careful plant selection with the details of site selection, you will have created a butterfly garden that is a microhabitat providing a unique location where a wide variety of butterflies can live and grow.
Many people like to add a bit of action to their gardens by planting plants that attract wildlife. One of the creatures gardeners sometimes like to attract is the butterfly. Its beautiful colors and ability to pollinate flowers are welcome attributes to most backyards.
There are several plants that attract butterflies; here are a few to consider that are just perfect for smaller yards.
This is the common Butterfly Bush. It is a very large shrub, reaching a height of 6′ to 12′ if left on it’s own. With proper pruning, though, Buddleia davidii can stay a nice size for a small garden centerpiece. It tolerates most soils and even has a high tolerance for soils with high salt content.
Buddleia Davidii bush and a Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
It’s a very hardy plant, has woody stems and keeps green leaves almost all year around. Its flowers are small and bloom in clusters. There are many different colors of Buddleia davidii ranging from purple, yellow, orange, and even to white.
It likes partial sun to full sun and can survive with only light watering. It’s better to prune the bush in the winter after the plant has gone into hibernation so that when it comes back in the spring, it will be shorter and bushier.
The is a native of Asia and a tropical perennial. They are easily propagated through seeds or cuttings. They love sun and can survive light droughts. The plant stays low to the ground, and so is perfect for a small garden or flower bed.
It has many single-stem flowers that are round and vary in color and pedal shape. Chrysanthemums are the second most popular flower from florists, and will make an excellent addition to any garden. They attract a large range of butterflies and provide a showy bit of color.
“Aster,” meaning “star,” refers to the shape of this plant’s blooms. There are many varieties of this plant in almost every color, so having different colors in the garden can be a snap with these flowers. Asters tolerate all hardiness zones and have been grown all over the U.S.
They are considered a type of wild flower and get no taller than around 1 foot. With so many colors to choose from, asters can create a diverse garden with little effort that is a hit for the local butterflies. We share our tips for growing New England aster, and China aster here.
Coreopsis plants have flowers similar in shape to asters. They can also have color that is darker near the center of the bloom and brighter on the edges.
They bloom in the summer months and tollerate zones 3-9, covering a wide range of yearly temperatures.
The greenery on this plant is attractive, with thin, consistently green leaves.
Monarch Butterfly on Yellow Coreopsis
Most stores sell these from seeds or plant, so they can be easily found for the person who likes to start from seedlings and the person who may not have time for that.
Surely, the butterflies will love this addition to the garden and the bright colors it brings, which range from white and scarlet to bright sun yellow.
The infamous lavender plant! It’s been added as fragrance for foods and homes for centuries, but has been attracting butterflies for even longer. This plant is hardy throughout all zones in the U.S. and also discourages pests in the garden.
Not only do the flowers give off a lavender scent, the greenery does as well. It has many fragrant uses other than just to look pretty, but any garden can benefit from a little lavender here and there.
Swallowtail butterfly in a lavender field.
The plant is often bushy and comes in a few varieties, so pick out the variety you think will fit into you garden the best. Some can be a low bush and some can be a little bit taller bush.
Most people know about lavender being purple as there is even a color called “lavender,” however, the plant also has a “rose” variety that is pink. So you can pink up your garden or purple it out, and still attract many butterflies to it.
Echinacea, or purple coneflower has become popular now as an herbal supplement that helps improve the effectiveness of the immune system.
But regardless of whether or not a person uses it for health benefits, there is no doubt that echinacea has been a popular addition to gardens for many years. Butterflies love this flower, and it is considered very hardy in almost all zones, with warmer zones even allowing for it to be a perennial.
This plant does get somewhat tall, its blooms rising on stalks from 2 feet to 2 1/2 feet off the ground, so it is best placed in the back of a small garden to add a bit of height. The plant does not crowd other flowers and grows up, not out. And despite being called a “purple” cone flower, echinacea does come in other colors, usually rich reds and even green. This plant is a highly recommended addition to the garden.
A giant swallowtail alights on a backyard butterfly bush for some much need refreshment during her migration.
With even these few to choose from, surely one or all of them can help you create a wonderful, compact garden that attracts beautiful butterflies all season long.
All of the aforementioned varieties are well stocked in most local garden shops in most areas and definitely plentiful in online garden stores. Happy gardening and happy butterfly watching!
Butterfly Gardening – Using Butterfly Garden Plants
By Stan V. Griep
American Rose Society Consulting Master Rosarian – Rocky Mountain District
The list of welcome garden visitors includes not only our friends, family members and “furry” friends (our dogs, cats and maybe even a rabbit or two) but also ladybugs, praying mantis, dragonflies, bees and butterflies to name a few. But one of my favorite garden guests is the butterfly. Let’s look at plants that attract butterflies so that you can welcome these flying beauties.
Starting Butterfly Gardening
If you like to see the butterflies gracefully dancing about your smiling blooms like I do, planting some flowering plants that help attract them is a great thing to do. Perhaps create a bed with butterfly garden plants as it will not only attract the butterflies but other wonderful garden visitors such as the delightful hummingbirds.
Butterflies gracefully dancing about the blooms in my rose beds and wildflower garden are truly a highlight to my morning garden walks. When our Linden tree blooms, it not only fills the air all around it with a wonderful and intoxicating fragrance, it attracts the butterflies and bees. Planting flowers that attract butterflies is all you need to do to start butterfly gardening.
List of Butterfly Garden Plants
The beauty and grace that butterflies bring to one’s garden are far greater than any garden ornament that you could ever purchase. So let’s take a look at some flowering plants for butterfly gardens that attract butterflies. Here is a listing of some plants that attract butterflies:
Flowers That Attract Butterflies
- Achillea, Yarrow
- Asclepias tuberosa, Butterfly Milkweed
- Gaillardia grandiflora, Blanket Flower
- Alcea rosea, Hollyhock
- Helianthus, Sunflower
- Chrysanthemum maximum, Shasta Daisy
- Lobularia maritima, Sweet Alyssum
- Aster, Aster
- Rudbeckia hirta, Black-eyed Susan or
- Coreopsis, Coreopsis
- Cosmos, Cosmos
- Dianthus, Dianthus
- Echinacea purpurea, Purple Coneflower
- Rosa, Roses
- Verbena bonariensis, Verbena
- Tagetes, Marigold
- Zinnis elegans, Zinna
- Phlox, Phlox
This is just a partial listing of some of the flowering plants that attract butterflies to our gardens, and they not only attract these beautiful, graceful visitors but add colorful beauty to our gardens as well. Further research on your part will help you to zero in on exactly what types of plants attract specific types of butterflies and other wonderful garden visitors to your gardens. This type of butterfly gardening has many levels of enjoyment to it; I am speaking from a point of personal experience. Enjoy your gardens!
Watching butterflies dance around colorful flowers in the garden makes everything come to life a little bit more. There’s something magical about the way they flutter to and fro, choosing each landing spot carefully. But the most special thing about butterflies is their lifecycle—the way they transform from a caterpillar to a butterfly in a matter of weeks.
It’s simple to attract butterflies to your garden and keep them coming back. You just have to create a butterfly-friendly environment. You can do so by:
- Growing a combination of host plants for the caterpillars and nectar plants for the adults
- Planting brightly colored flowers
- Growing regional plants rather than foreign or invasive species
- Planting flowers that bloom rotationally so that when one plant finishes blooming another one starts
- Refusing to use pesticides and insecticides, which can make the butterflies sick or kill them
- Creating puddling spots that provide the butterflies with water
Make the Butterflies Feel At Home
Did you know that there are over 700 species of butterflies in North America? We’re used to seeing common species like monarchs, but you can attract many different types of butterflies by providing a few basic resources: sunny open spaces, shelter, fresh water, nectar, and a place to lay their eggs.
By planting an assortment of flowers, herbs, grass, vines, and trees, your garden will become the perfect place for butterfly eggs, caterpillars, and adults. Plus, you’ll be doing your flowers a favor by attracting insects to pollinate them.
You may already have some common, butterfly-friendly flowers like lilacs and marigolds in your garden, but if you’re looking to add more, remember that butterflies are drawn to bright colors like red, yellow, orange, pink, and purple.
Grow Host Plants
Host plants give the butterflies a place to lay their eggs and provide caterpillars with food once they hatch. Though there are a general group of recommended host plants for North American species, each butterfly has a special preference.
Grow Nectar Plants
Adult butterflies aren’t as picky as caterpillars about their diets. They’ll drink nectar from many different types of plants, and sometimes even prefer fruit. However, they do still have favorite flowers, trees, and shrubs if they can find them.
How to Make a Butterfly Feeder
Most species enjoy and thrive on sweet nectar, but some species like the Mourning Cloak and Red Admiral also need fruit in their diet. The fruit provides them with carbohydrates and minerals.
You can supplement butterflies nectar diets, and provide them with a central location to gather in your garden by putting out a plate of overripe fruit or creating a butterfly feeder. To create a butterfly feeder, all you need is a jar, string, and a sponge. See how to make one below.
How to Make a Butterfly Puddling Spot
Nectar is a butterfly’s primary source of food, but they still need water to hydrate and get the right amount of salts and minerals. Because butterflies are so small, they can’t land on large bodies of water like birds might. Instead, they have a puddling ritual where they land on a muddy or sandy patch and drink water that has collected there like pictured below.
You can create a puddling spot to encourage butterflies to gather like this by filling a shallow container with dirt (avoid potting soil or dirt with fertilizers) or sand, and keeping it moist. Add rocks or other flat, solid surfaces to make it easier for butterflies to land and drink water.
When To Expect The Butterflies
Migration patterns for each species of butterfly is different. Some go only in one direction following food. Others make a two-way migration, traveling south in the fall and north in the spring. The most is known about monarch migration, which is the longest known insect migration on Earth! Around August, monarchs begin to fly south from Canada and the northern part of America, looking for warm winters in places like California, Texas, and Mexico. This means that if it’s warm in your area, it’s probably butterfly season. Explore the map below, inspired by Monarch Watch, to learn more about monarch migration patterns.”
Whether you want to create a complete butterfly garden with a puddling spot and feeder, or simply want to add new plants to your garden, these tips, and a warm environment, will attract butterflies in no time.
Make Butterflies Feel at Home (right): CC Image courtesy of Brian Robert Marshall on Wikimedia Commons
Black Swallowtail: CC Image courtesy of Tony Hisgett on Wikimedia Commons
Cabbage White: CC Image courtesy of Vera Buhl on Wikimedia Commons
Monarch: CC Image courtesy of akrontrekker on Flickr
Pygmy Blue: CC Image courtesy of Ranger Robb on Flickr
Zebra Swallowtail: CC Image courtesy of Megan McCarty on Wikimedia Commons
Dogface: CC Image courtesy of Ranger Robb on Flickr
Checkered White: CC Image courtesy of Megan McCarty on Wikimedia Commons
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail: CC Image courtesy of James St. John on Flickr
Spring Azure: CC Image courtesy of Ranger Robb on Flickr
Tailed Blue: Spring Azure: CC Image courtesy of Ranger Robb on Flickr
Viceroy: CC Image courtesy of PiccoloNamek on Wikimedia Commons
Butterfly puddling spot: CC Image courtesy of chinmayisk on Flickr (image was cropped)
Migration Map: modifief from the original at http://monarchwatch.org/