More Secrets to Creating a Lively Butterfly Garden

From Patricia Collins, director of gardens at Callaway Gardens.

By Lynn Coulter

Plants for Caterpillars

One of the best ways to lure butterflies to your garden is by providing “host plants” to attract them in their caterpillar forms. These host plants supply food for the caterpillars.

For instance, parsley is easy to grow and appeals to caterpillars that will become black swallowtail butterflies. Use more than one parsley plant, says Patricia Collins, a director at Georgia’s Callaway Gardens, or you may go out one day to find nothing left but stems, after all the foliage is eaten. Of course, you’re planting the parsley for the butterflies to munch, but growing more than one plant will keep your garden from looking bare.

Another host plant that’s fun to grow, Collins says, is maypop, often called passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). Maypops are perennial vines that can become weedy and invasive, but gulf fritillary and zebra longwing caterpillars love them. Once established, the plants are fairly drought resistant.

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, does double-duty as a host plant and nectar source. This hardy perennial, a North American native that grows into southern Canada,  bears clusters of orange to orange-yellow flowers on long branches. The blossoms are rich in nectar. Also known as orange milkweed, try the plants in rock gardens or alongside roadsides, where they can have the sandy or gravelly soils, and full sun, that they prefer.

Plants for Butterflies

Once your caterpillars have emerged as adult butterflies, offer them some flowering plants and shrubs to encourage them to stay around.

Butterflies love Lantana, which is heat and drought resistant. It comes in numerous varieties. ‘Confetti’ has a shrubby growth habit, spreading 6 to 8 inches across and growing 2 to 3 feet tall. Its candy-colored flowers are pink, yellow and purple. ‘New Gold’ makes a nice groundcover in sunny locations, reaching 9 to 12 inches high and producing mounds of bright gold blossoms. For hanging baskets, try Lantana montevidensis, a trailing form with lilac, purple or mauve flowers. ‘Alba,’ which bears white blooms, trails to 10 feet and tolerates drought or seaside growing conditions.

Buddleia davidii, also known as butterfly bush, is another butterfly magnet. The plants grow as large, deciduous shrubs with long, arching canes. Because they can sprawl and look messy, tuck them behind sunny beds or borders, or along the edges of your property. Buddleias produce panicles, loose clusters of flowers held on small, multiple branches. ‘Black Knight’ carries deep violet to dark purple panicles, while ‘Nanho Blue’ is a mauve-blue form. ‘Nanho Alba’ has white panicles and a mild fragrance.

Zinnias for your butterfly garden can be started indoors from seeds. These cheerful flowers are easy to grow annuals. ‘Zahara Double Cherry’ yields bouquets of cherry-red flowers while ‘Zahara Double Fire’ has scarlet-orange blooms. ‘Profusion Cherry’ and its sun-loving sisters, ‘Profusion Orange’ and ‘Profusion White,” were named AAA Gold Medal winners by independent judges chosen by the National Garden Bureau. These dwarf zinnias are exceptionally resistant to disease (remember, you don’t want to spray chemicals around butterflies) and thrive in beds or containers.

Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, is a drought-resistant perennial. Native to the Midwest and southeastern U.S., it naturalizes in fields and meadows, but also grows well in flowerbeds and pots. The flat, broad-petaled flowers make great landing pads for butterflies. Coneflowers like hot summers and tolerate full sun to light shade.

Glossy abelia, Abelia x grandiflora, is a medium-sized evergreen shrub, hardy in USDA zones 6 through 9. Its pinkish-white, tubular flowers start opening in late spring and continue throughout the summer. They’re packed with nectar for thirsty butterflies.

Many salvias also have short, tube-shaped flowers that butterflies adore. Salvia coccinea, sometimes called scarlet sage or Texas sage, performs well in hot climates and dry soils. It also appeals to hummingbirds. The violet-blue flower spikes of Salvia farinacea, or mealycup sage, appear from spring to fall. Look for cultivars like ‘Blue Bedder’ and ‘Victoria.’

General Tips

Butterflies love sun and bright colors. You can have a shady butterfly garden, but it reduces the number of species that will be attracted to it.

Arrange butterfly plants in big groupings, not onesies and twosies, so your winged visitors can easily spot them.

Remember, don’t use pesticides. Butterfly gardening isn’t for people who want perfectly groomed gardens.

Butterflies like short tubular flowers (see above for a few suggestions). They land and unroll their proboscis, which they use like a siphon to suck up nectar. Some flowers, like Hibiscus, have tubes that are too long for butterflies.

Butterflies like to roost in woody shrubs, so grow a variety of plants. It’s also good to have layers of plantings, from short flowers to medium-sized or tall shrubs and trees. If possible, grow plants that bloom at various times, so your butterfly buffet will be open throughout the growing season.

Use at least one or two host plants for caterpillars (see above for a few suggestions).

If you want to offer additional nectar, such as bananas or sugar water, be aware that you may attract ants as well as butterflies. Often, you can simply plant a varied garden and butterflies will come.

Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see a lot of butterflies in spring or early summer. Their numbers usually increases as we get further along in the growing season and the temperatures rise. If you’re watching for monarchs, these migratory butterflies leave their winter homes in Mexico each spring to return to the U.S. and usually reach the central states by mid-April and Canada by mid-May. To track their whereabouts online, visit Journey North.

Butterflies like to “puddle” at the edge of streams, where they can sip salts and minerals from soil. If you don’t have a stream nearby, put some sand in a saucer and keep it moist. Avoid letting water stand in the bowl, as it would in a birdbath. Add a few drops of liquid fertilizer in the sand about every other week, to provide nutrients. In hot weather, the water will evaporate quickly, so check your butterfly “watering hole” often.

For more information about butterflies, you can also visit Callaway Garden’s Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center, where over 1,000 tropical butterflies, representing more than 50 different species, flutter freely through the air.

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