Pairing Garden Plants with Butterflies

My Garden Life
May 20, 2020
Table of Contents
Butterfly gardens are becoming increasingly popular, and why not? Who doesn’t want to attract a swarm of colorful pollinators to brighten up an outdoor space? But what if there’s a specific butterfly you want to bring into your landscape—a flashy painted lady, an exotic pearl crescent, or perhaps the beloved monarch? We’ll show you what to plant to convince five favorite butterflies to make your garden their home.

Many gardeners devote a section, or even all, of their garden to attracting butterflies, planting perennials like butterfly bush, coneflower, and salvia, and annuals like sunflowers, zinnia and lantana. The blossoms of these plants provide the nectar many adult butterflies rely on as their primary food source (as well as nectar and pollen favored by other pollinators). But if you want a specific type of butterfly to make a home in your garden, you may have to get more specific in your planting plans.
Below find five favorite butterflies and the specific plants they need to thrive.

1. Monarch Butterfly

Danaus plexippus

Monarchs are one of the most stately, well known, and well-loved of the butterflies. If you think, however, you are noticing less of these tiger-hued beauties flitting through your butterfly gardens, you are right. Over the last 25 years, the monarch butterfly population in North America has declined by over 90%. Most if not all of that is attributable to a decline in the monarch’s unique habitat.
The milkweed is the monarch caterpillar’s only host plant. The most important thing you can do to help save the monarch and bring more of the creatures into your garden is to make sure you’ve planted some milkweed among your flower beds. Luckily, there are plenty of varieties of ornamental milkweed—butterfly weed and scarlet milkweed are two favorites—that sport colorful and beautiful leaves and blooms and will fit right in with even the most formal of border plantings.

2. Spicebush Swallowtail

Papilio troilus

Papilio troilus, Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar and butterfly

Another iconic and favorite butterfly is the spicebush butterfly, with its blue-black wings stippled with green-blue or bright blue oval edging. Like the monarch, the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar can be picky about where it chooses to live. Fortunately for homeowners looking to attract the spicebush swallowtail, the spicebush is one such plant (not surprising given the butterfly’s name). Even better, this shrub is an attractive addition to any garden with its fragrant yellow flowers in spring, followed by red berries in the summer, and golden leaves in the fall.

3. Pearl Crescent

Phyciodes tharos

Phyciodes tharos, Pearl crescent caterpillar and butterfly

These tiny cheerful garden visitors look like miniature monarchs with the same tiger markings and colors. You’ll see their numbers increase as summer winds down and the asters start to bloom. Like many butterflies, the nectar of the aster is a favorite food. And in the case of the pearl crescent, it’s by far the favorite plant to host that insect’s caterpillars.

4. Red Spotted Purple

Limenitis arthemis

Limenitis arthemis, Red spotted purple caterpillar and butterfly

You won’t find these iridescent lovelies among the butterfly garden flowers. They like to feed on more unusual fare – rotting fruit and animal droppings – that’s not the sort of features most want to incorporate in their landscape. But you can still attract the red spotted purple by planting any tree or shrub from the willow family; plants favored by this butterfly’s caterpillars.

5. Painted Lady

Vanessa cardui

Vanessa cardui, Painted lady caterpillar and butterfly

Orange and black painted ladies can often be found in open fields and along roadsides because their caterpillars love to feast on the thistle that flourishes there. If you want more of these graceful butterflies in your garden but don’t want to plant invasive thistle, try hollyhocks instead, another favorite of the painted lady’s caterpillars.

Family restaurants figured it out a long time ago—you attract parent diners when you let their children eat for free. The same goes for getting certain types of butterflies to your garden. Providing the specific host plant that a species’ caterpillars prefer will let you mix and match butterflies as easily as you do your garden’s flowers.

It doesn’t matter how big a space you have for planting, you can create a garden that attracts butterflies and other pollinators. Read how in our discussion of creating a butterfly container garden.

Butterfly on salvia plants


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