Plants for Butterfly Gardens
Gardeners generally love butterflies (well except for the few who actually damage our garden plants) and want to attract more butterflies to the garden. There are some interesting and beautiful moths that are also fun to watch. It’s more than choosing plants for butterflies and moths to sip nectar from; it’s also about providing plants for them to lay their eggs on and their caterpillars to eat.
All butterflies and moths lay eggs that turn into caterpillars, which then spin a pupae case or cocoon and then emerge from that as a butterfly. The caterpillars or larval stage of butterflies and moths can be very destructive because they will be feeding on the plant they hatch on and maybe others nearby. However only a few species of butterflies and moths cause long term damage or death to their host plants. Adult butterflies and moths don’t live very long, a few months at most. They usually don’t cause any damage and are helpful pollinators of many plants.
You don’t have to plant only native plants to attract butterflies and moths. While there are a few specialists who only prefer one “host” plant (the plant they lay eggs on) many butterflies accept several host plants and most visit a number of plants for nectar. Some of our butterflies are themselves introduced species so they are flexible in food and egg laying resources. When glancing through any butterfly and moth identification guide you’ll often notice that many of the plants that they prefer to get nectar from or lay eggs on are non-native, common weeds or garden flowers.
Many butterflies prefer flowers that have flat surfaces, or have short nectar tubes although a few butterflies and moths are drawn to flowers with long tubes. Butterflies and moths seem drawn to colorful, bright flowers like yellow, orange, red and pink. Some also like purple or blue flowers. Scent in flowers is not as important as it is for bees. Night flying moths prefer white flowers. Some butterflies and moths don’t eat at all as adults, some only sip at mineral enriched mud, some prefer rotten fruit or sap, and some are even carnivorous. And even in this advanced scientific world we don’t know what nectar plants and host plants that some of the rarer species of butterflies and moths prefer.
You probably won’t be able to attract all the butterflies and moths that exist in your state to your garden, because some butterflies and moths prefer plants that themselves like to grow in a specialized environment like a bog or beach. And some butterflies and moths may actually be unwelcome on your property, like the pretty sphinx moth who lays eggs on your tomatoes that turn into ugly tomato hornworms and the cabbage butterfly who lays eggs on your cabbage and broccoli that turn into little green cabbage worms. But many gardeners do want to attract as many kinds of non-harmful butterflies and moths as possible.
When you want to attract butterflies and moths to your garden you should provide colorful nectar flowers in larger patches of the same color, rather than as individual dots of color here and there. Host plants for caterpillars should also be in patches. One large buddleia can provide a good patch of color but for maximum attraction you’d want to plant a lot of marigolds for example, of about the same color.
Butterflies seem to prefer flowers in the sun, although they sometimes visit shade flowers. A patch of mud, especially with a little manure mixed in, and some soft fruit like a mushy banana, a slice of melon, soft strawberries on a plate somewhere can increase the number of species attracted to your garden. But beware soft fruit can attract bees and hornets as well as flies.
Butterfly feeders also exist in which you place sugar water like a hummingbird feeder but they are not that effective in attracting butterflies and will attract a lot of bees, hornets and ants too. It’s probably best to stay natural with plants.
There are some plants that will attract the maximum number of harmless butterflies and moths in a list below. These are plants that a number of species use. Some may be both nectar sources for adult butterflies and moths and host plants for caterpillars. A good identification guide will often tell you if a rare species of butterfly or moth has been seen in your county and what host and nectar plants it prefers. You may be able to add these plants to your garden also.
If you wish to attract butterflies and moths you’ll have to decide if you are willing to tolerate some plants that are considered weeds and that may not be very attractive to the human eye. You can choose only pretty garden flowers but that will limit what species are attracted. One idea is to let one area of your property grow the weedy plants, maybe one that can be hidden a bit.
Plants that might attract butterflies or moths but those butterflies or moths would be unwelcome, such as cabbage, aren’t mentioned. Try to add as many of the listed plants to your garden as possible, remember patches of the same plant are better than singles. The plants on the list below are chosen for Michigan and surrounding states but many are good for other places as well.
Asters, native species and cultivars
Bee balm- monarda, all kinds- bergamot
Beggars Ticks- bidens- any kind
Black eyed Susans, rudbeckia species
Black cherry, choke cherries
Bog rosemary (Andromeda glacophylla)
Buttonbush- Cephalanthus occidentalis
Calibrachoa (Million bells)
Ceanothus sanquineus (wild lilac)
Clovers of all kinds- gardeners may want some of the ornamental crimson/reds
Columbine, all kinds
Daisies of any kind, wild and domestic
Grasses- native and non-native, bluestem, bentgrass, Bermuda, beardgrass, lovegrass, panic grass and others – many butterflies, skippers and moths that favor grasses are pretty but pests.
Hawkweed, orange and yellow
Honeysuckle, native and non-native
Joe Pye Weed
Phlox, both native species and domesticated cultivars
Milkweed- Butterfly weed- ascleplias any kinds
Mints of any type
Mustard/rape, Brassica kaber
Nettles (Urtica species)
New Jersey tea
Oaks – native species
Prickly Pear cactus
Purple loosestrife (yes many butterflies like it)
Queen Anne’s Lace
Sheep sorrel (Rumex)
Shrubby cinguefoil (Potentilla) all kinds
Staghorn sumac, other sumacs
St. Johns wort
Strawberries, all kinds
Sunflowers, all kinds
Thistles, bull, Russian, all kinds
Vetches, all kinds
Violets, all kinds
Wild plum, Prunus americana
Wisteria, native or Chinese
Yarrow- all types
This is not a complete list of all the plants that butterflies utilize. Many tropical plants put outside in summer also attract them and many other annuals and perennial flowers get at least some attention from them. A colorful garden with a variety of species and letting the garden edges go a little wild will do wonders to attract butterflies and moths.
Here are some other articles you may want to read.
Non native plants that are great for pollinators
Growing heritage garden flowers
Are poppies legal to grow?