Attracting butteflies to the garden

Gulf Fritillary on pentas

This summer, although of late hotter than the Sahara, has still been a good one for butterflies.

I’ve been planting for these winged acrobats for most of my garden life, but I think this might be the best year ever. I attribute that to several things.

Butterflies don’t just appear with the tap of a magic wand. They require a few simple accommodations. They like a big, packed garden full of diversity. They also like their home to be a messy one. Nectar plants are important, but like most creatures, they want good schools for their children.

No, wait, I’m kidding. No schools, but they do require good food and shelter for their offspring. So, larval plants are as important as nectar sources.

A little skipper on Echinacea purpurea, common coneflower, maybe a Brown Duskywing. I think they are cute because they have such large eyes.

This year, trying to attract the swallowtail group, I worked very hard to have plenty of herbs like parsley, dill and fennel. I bought plants of each early in spring (after danger of frost) and also planted seeds in the garden’s empty spaces. All of these compound umbels of the parsley family are as beautiful as they are tasty, so they make nice transition plants between the perennials.

I staggered plantings of these caterpillar loving plants so that once they gnawed their way through the first planting, I had more for the next nursery set.

I also planted several stands of butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, for the baby Monarchs, and hardy blue passion flower, Passiflora caerulea, for the Fritillaries. Butterfly weed can take awhile to get established, and it also sometimes moves around the garden on its own. In the future, I’m going to order some other native milkweeds for the garden.

Monarch butterfly munching on butterfly weed.

While their parents floated throughout the garden sipping nectar, their little darlings ate their favorite plants, and then went to chrysalis land for their naps. A short time later they woke as adults and began the cycle all over again.

As a result, I have a quite varied group of butterflies this year including:

Gulf Fritillary. Larval plants include most of the passion-vine family including maypops, Passiflora incarnata, native to the southern U.S. and running pop, P. foetida, common to Texas and Arizona along with Central and South America. Nectar plants include: lantana, tall verbena, Verbena bonariensis, and drummond’s phlox, Phlox drummondii . I’ve seen them frequenting both the pentas and the garden phlox, Phlox paniculata. They seem especially fond of the cultivar ‘Bright Eyes’.

Black Swallowtail. The state butterfly of Oklahoma, Black Swallowtails are a common site along the edges of the deciduous forest. Larval foods come from the carrot or parsley family. Since I have tons of Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota, surrounding my garden (not purposely), Black Swallowtails should have a field day in my lower pasture (pun intended). Also, fennel (I grow the bronze because it’s pretty) and dill are popular caterpillar food. I’ve never noticed them on my carrots probably because they like the above plants better. Adult nectar sources include milkweeds (natives are best), common garden phlox, P. paniculata, thistles, which grow wild throughout Oklahoma (some are invasive) and purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea.

Painted Lady on black-eyed Susans

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Larval food: the leaves of common trees like ash, Fraxinus spp., birch, Betula spp., cottonwood, Populus spp., hornbeam, Carpinus spp., paw paw, Asimina spp., and many others, including wild cherry and plum and deciduous magnolia. Adults feed upon the nectar of butterfly bush like Buddleia davidii ‘Black Knight’, native honeysuckle, Lonicera spp.; common lilacs, milkweeds, and thistles. In my garden, they also seem to like the pink common garden phlox and the black-eyed Susans.

Giant Swallowtail. The caterpillars of this butterfly are pests to the orange growers of Florida. Here, with no orange leaves to eat, they satisfy themselves with prickly ash, Zanthoxylum americanum, hop trees, Ptelea trifoliata, and common rue, Ruta graveolens. Adults are especially fond of lantanas, bougainvilla, dame’s rocket, Hesperis matronalis, which is invasive throughout much of the U.S., goldenrod, Solidago spp., Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica (also extremely invasive) , and swamp milkweed.

What I think is an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail coming in for a landing. Let me know if it's identified incorrectly. I've been told it may be a Giant Swallowtail.

Pipevine Swallowtail. larval food: the leaves of pipevines, Aristolochia spp. (I don’t know where they’re finding these nearby.) Adult food:  honeysuckles, milkweeds and thistles

Spicebush Swallowtail: Like other swallowtails, caterpillars love the leaves of various trees and shrubs including prickly ash, Zanthoxylum; sweetbay, Magnolia; tulip tree, Liriodendron; adults enjoy the nectar from azaleas, rhododendrons, dogbane, jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, milkweeds and other native plants.

Monarch on wild Ageratum, Eupatorium coelestinum

Monarch. Ah, the lovely Monarch, the star of so many children’s books, is in danger. Over the years, much of its habitat has been destroyed; and after an especially cold winter in Mexico, this queen of the butterflies needs our help. The best thing we can do is search out native milkweeds, Asclepias spp., and grow them in our gardens as caterpillar food. One of the best places to order these in Oklahoma is Wild Things Nursery which offers seven different types of milkweed. According to the Butterflies and Moths of North America website, “Monarchs visit a variety of flowers including dogbane, lilac, red clover, lantana, and thistles. In the fall adults visit composites including goldenrods, blazing stars, ironweed, and tickseed sunflower.” Many of these plants have a starring role in my garden.

Red Spotted Purple. Larval food: the leaves of apple trees, aspens, cottonwoods and poplars, along with many other trees. Adults like rotting meat, dung, rotting fruit, sap flows in trees, occasionally nectar of small white flowers.

Silvery Checkerspot. In my garden, the Silvery Checkerspot loves the Susans and hangs out and about them the entire day probably because its caterpillars love them too. Caterpillars also love members of the sunflower family, Helianthus spp.

Red Admiral. I think the Red Admiral is one of the most beautiful butterflies, but it is especially difficult to catch with my camera because of its erratic and quick flight. It’s like trying to capture the yellow sulphurs, nearly impossible. Still, whenever I’m in the garden, I make a mental picture of this beauty. Larval food is the nettle family. I don’t have any nettles growing in the garden, but I suspect they grow at the edge of my wood. Adults enjoy bird droppings (think of the chickens) and rotting fruit. They also will visit asters, milkweeds and alfalfa.

Phaon Crescent. Both adults and caterpillars enjoy nectar and leaves from the frogfruit and mat grass, which are part of the Verbena family. Where they are finding these nearby, I don’t know, but the butterflies have visited me this summer.

Painted Lady. I remember hatching these wonderful butterflies with the kids when we bought a butterfly kit one spring. Larval food includes members of the sunflower family, ironweed, Vernonia spp., and wormwood,  Artemisia spp. Adults enjoy asters, dogbane, goldenrod, and milkweeds among other flowers.

Black Swallowtail female? She is missing the tail of one wing. May possibly be a Spicebush Swallowtail.

Other butterflies, including the small skippers and sulphurs, are visiting too, but these are the most common ones in my garden.

To recap, if you want more butterflies to enjoy, remember:

  • Plant what they like to eat. Keep some of the garden wild. Many native plants are either larval or nectar sources.
  • Let the garden be full and natural. It gives them places to rest and hide and protects them from the wind. Caterpillars can also hide better in more crowded surroundings. Plus, the closer you plant things together, the less weeding you have to do.
  • Grow more plants native to Oklahoma and the prairie. Much of the Great American tall and short grass prairie is gone, and butterflies need food for their journey. Monarchs are especially affected by the loss of native milkweeds, their only food source. Oklahoma is a prime migrating channel for Monarchs and other butterflies so I feel like it’s an obligation to help them along their way.
  • Once the garden freezes, leave it in situ so that any pupating creatures still have homes. Some species of butterflies winter over and emerge in spring. Leaving seed heads also provides food and cover for many birds and other small creatures.
  • Give butterflies shallow places to stop and drink. A small birdbath filled with flat stones is ideal. Also, a small muddy spot is good because many adult male butterflies “puddle” a process which aids in reproduction.
  • Don’t spray pesticides and herbicides. It stands to reason if something kills the bad bugs, it won’t spare the “good” ones. Chemicals create a sterile environment which is anti-nature.
  • Set out rotting fruit in a corner of the garden near nectar plants. Remember when the butterflies enjoyed my fallen peaches?

I know this was a long post, so if you read this far, thanks. I hope it helps those who are trying to attract more winged creatures to their gardens.

Now, I’m interested to hear which butterflies grace your garden and what you do to encourage them. Please let me know in a comment below. Also, if I mis-identified a butterfly, please let me know. Some of them are difficult to i.d.

About 

I'm a writer, born and raised in Oklahoma, and an obsessive gardener who attempts to grow over 90 rose bushes, along with daylilies and other perennials. I also grow some mean tomatoes and peppers, and I'm gluten and casein intolerant, hence the gluten free blogs.

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32 comments on “Attracting butteflies to the garden

  1. Alan

    Hi Dee,

    I know I’m reading this late but wanted to let you know it was well worth it! Great article, I really enjoyed it!!

    1. Dee Nash

      Alan, those articles are available whenever you are. I’m glad you liked it.

  2. Leslie

    I am so envious and impressed by the variety of butterflies you have. But then you are offering everything they want or need…I need to try harder!

  3. gardenercaleb

    I seem to recall reading somewhere that the “eye zones” on bicolor flowers like ‘Bright Eyes’ phlox somehow narrow insects’ focus to the central point. Think about how many butterfly plants have a differently colored center – buddleias are a case in point…

  4. Jenny B

    I very much enjoyed your post. It’s nice to know it’s not just me that has trouble identifying all the flutterbys. I am trying to grow more natives/wildflower mixes to encourage and nourish them. It is such a shame that our prairies have been, for all practical purposes, wiped out. I think we need to compensated by making our own little native habitats to be little oasis for these winged beauties.

  5. Debbie/GardenofPossibilities

    Dee, I’ve been planting to entice butterflies over the past few years and it seems to be working. Joe Pye weed is a favorite in my garden as are my new lo & behold buddlieas. And Agastache is another bee and butterfly magnet. I am planning to add some Asclepias in the fall for food next season and am keeping my fingers crossed the fennel doesn’t take over.

  6. Dee Nash

    Thanks Bren, you’re too kind.

  7. Bren

    I love to see the butterflies in the garden…. it means you did a great job growing for them to enjoy!

    Wonderful photos as always Dee. I love visiting your garden via your blog.

  8. Dorothy

    I believe your Tiger Swallowtail is actually a Giant Swallowtail, very common in my area and an absolutely gorgeous butterfly. Thank you for a very interesting post about some of my favorite garden wildlife.

    1. Dee Nash

      You know, Dorothy, you may be right. I don’t know which one he or she is. I’ll add that to the picture caption just to be sure.

  9. Lisa at Greenbow

    Fantastic post Dee. I hope this helps people realize that they need host plants for the larval form of the butterflies as well as nectaring plants.

    1. Dee Nash

      Thanks Lisa.

  10. Cyndy

    Great photo of the monarch caterpillar! It’s been a fabulous year for the flutterbys here – nice to know they enjoy the mess:)

    1. Dee Nash

      Hi Cyndy,

      Thanks for stopping by. Yes, they are the excuse for my mess too.

  11. Carol

    Excellent information, for any gardener. I am enjoying lots of butterflies,too, but I don’t really know which is which. I love seeing them in my garden, though, because it makes me think I’ve done something right.

    1. Dee Nash

      I can’t always tell which is which either which is why I have a question mark after some of them. :)

  12. Gardener on Sherlock Street

    I will be back to absorb more of this post. Very good information on such a variety of butterflies. I’m seeing good numbers too but have learned a lot from blogs like yours about more plants that butterflies love. I need to make a plan to add those plants to my garden next spring. Thank you for gathering all the information and you have great photos!!!!!

    1. Dee Nash

      Hi GSS, it is a really long post even for me so I understand not being able to read it all at once. Yes, please, come back. Thanks for the sweet comment re: my photos.

  13. Mr. McGregor's Daughter

    This summer I’ve had a tiger swallowtail butterfly hanging around for the longest time, red admirals, yellow sulfurs, white cabbage butterflies, blue skippers, and recently a Monarch. My next door neighbors have Asclepias syriaca, which is a favored host plant for the Monarchs, and the adult has been hanging around my large container full of Callibrachoa. The swallowtail likes the Phloxes, coneflowers and Liatris, and I’m growing cabbage this year, which I haven’t protected as I like the little white butterflies. One day, a black swallowtail was hanging out in the Phloxes, but I haven’t seen it since.

    1. Dee Nash

      I’m glad to hear butterflies are all about your beautiful garden too MMD.

  14. Juanita Daigrepont

    Great article. I really enjoyed reading it.

    Very informative.

    1. Dee Nash

      Juanita, I’m so glad. My grandmother’s name was Juanita BTW. Thanks for stopping by.

  15. Carolflowerhill

    Hi Dee,

    It seems we are all doing butterfly post today. ;>) Yours is like a wonderful lesson and lovely with your illustrations. It could be published as a pamphlet for your native butterflies. I love that first photo… great colors. All of the photos are light and magic filled. Great advice too. I think the one that looks similar to the female black S. is really a Spicebush Swallowtail… she has been attacked by birds it would seem. I have made that same mistake in a recent post. Butterflies do have a hard time of it with the birds that is. All they see is a flying cater to eat … but the beautiful wings do help them survive longer… though they may become a bit tattered as days go by. Terrific post!

    1. Dee Nash

      Carol, you may be right. I’ll add that to the caption just to be sure. I’m not butterfly expert when it comes to the identification. I tried looking at online i.d. information, but still I’m not sure.

      Poor butterfly.

  16. Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

    Dee — Butterflies also have been plentiful in my backyard and at the garden center. There have been a lot of them, beginning with the painted ladies, since late May. Now the swallowtails are flitting about, along with skippers and others I can’t recognize. I don’t think that’s an eastern swallowtail on the phlox, though, but I can’t really tell for sure. Eastern swallowtails have a lot more yellow (unless it’s the black eastern swallowtail). Carole Brown (of wildlifegarden) addresses the multitude of butterflies today, too, at http://bit.ly/d4g5s9

    1. Dee Nash

      Jo Ellen, you may be right on that i.d. Swallowtails are funny things. Sometimes, they’re one color and sometimes another. I truly don’t know. I went and read Carole’s post and Frances’s. Seems a lot of us had butterflies on our minds.

  17. Kathy Purdy

    Hummingbirds also like Phlox paniculata. I have a stand of ‘Bright Eyes’ I can see from the window and I often see hummingbirds visit it. I really don’t know much about butterflies, though I’ve got the messy garden part covered.

    1. Dee Nash

      Yes, our hummers seem to like it too.

  18. Frances

    Thank you for this all inclusive post, Dee. I believe you have made the case with passion and reason for having our gardens be welcoming to the creatures above being neat to the point of having no flying, or crawling visitors. Having the full ecosystem is important. In my garden, we have left some plantains once I learned that was the larval food for the buckeyes. Everything exists for a reason.

    1. Dee Nash

      Frances, I really enjoyed your post about stalking an elusive swallowtail. It was wonderful.

  19. deb

    Great article.

    1. Dee Nash

      Thanks Deb, that peach cobbler sounds delish.