Mourning Cloak eggs and moth larvae on willow leaf The Butterfly Conservancy: Butterfly Gardening
When designing a butterfly garden, it is important to give the butterflies several things to make the habitat attractive to them, and to fulfill their life cycle needs. Most butterfly gardening books focus on nectar plants, which will attract transient butterflies looking for something to eat. To encourage butterflies to remain and even colonize your garden, you must also plant larval or host plants for the caterpillars to eat. Ideally you will also have a shallow mud puddle (to provide water, minerals & salts), and a flat, light-colored rock for the butterflies to bask on in the sunlight. Keep grass mowed as high as possible, to provide habitat for Blues and Skippers.

Create your butterfly garden design in a manner similar to the picture shown below, to give them a windbreak, and provide a variety of food sources, both nectar and larval, for the different types of native butterflies you are trying to attract. If planting a large area, you could place your taller plants in the center, planting in decreasing heights in a circle around the tall plants. This way you can plant several types of plants with different sun/shade requirements, and then observe the butterflies to see which they prefer to help plan your plant choices in future years.

It is better to plant with flower colors in groupings of similar hues, rather than mixing the colors indiscriminately, as this has been observed to be a preferred attractant for butterflies.

Remember that you absolutely, positively CANNOT USE INSECTICIDES in your butterfly garden, or you will kill the butterflies and caterpillars!! Use natural biological pest controls only.

Cross-section of a butterfly garden
Butterfly Nectar Plants

The following list includes a variety of nectar plants that will attract butterflies. When creating a butterfly garden, the size of the flower is important as to whether a species of butterfly can nectar on it. Larger, trumpet shaped flowers are used by larger butterflies (which have a longer proboscis), while smaller butterflies require shorter tubed flowers on which to nectar. Try not to purchase nectar plants that have been heavily hybridized to create double flowers, as these are generally poor nectar producers. In descending order of color preference, butterflies seem to prefer flowers that are red, yellow, orange, purple, pink, blue or white.

Bee Balm
Black-eyed Susan
Butterfly Plant (Buddleia)
Butterfly Weed (Milkweed)
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea)
Echium (Tower of Jewels)
Mexican Fire Weed (Tithonium)
Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium)
Lavender Tree
Obedience Plant
Passion Vine (Passiflora)
Butterfly Larval Plants

Below are some common North American butterfly species and their preferred larval or host plants. Some larval plants are also nectar plants. Be aware that virtually any plant purchased from a commercial nursery has been thoroughly doused with insecticides, and may also have systemic pesticides in its soil. You should repot all non-organically grown plants in fresh soil, and rinse leaves and flowers repeatedly for at least a week before introducing them to your butterfly garden.

Butterfly Species

Painted Lady
West Coast Lady
Gulf Fritillary
Great Spangled Fritillary
Mourning Cloak
Red Admiral
Lorquin’s Admiral
California Sister
California Dogface
Anise Swallowtail
Eastern Black Swallowtail
Pale White Swallowtail
Pipevine Swallowtail
Western Tiger Swallowtail

  Larval Plant

Grasses, Sedges
Milkweed (Asclepias ssp.)
Plaintain, Snapdragon
Mallow, Hollyhock, Nettle
Mallow, Hollyhock
Passiflora except P. vitifolia
Willow, Elm, Poplar
Baby’s Tears, Nettle, Hops
Willow, Poplar, Chokecherry
Canyon & Coast Live Oak
Willow, Aspen, Apple, Cherry
False Indigo, Clover
Fennel, Anise, Parsley
Fennel, Anise, Parsley
Ceanothus, Cherry, Alder 
Pipevine (Aristolochia ssp.)
Willow, Poplar, Aspen, Alder

Butterfly Gardening Classes and Reference Texts

Learn how to design a garden that encourages butterflies to visit and reproduce. With appropriate plants and an insect-friendly environment, you can attract these beautiful creatures to any size garden, regardless of your climate or urban setting. Classes are taught by many Garden Clubs, Museums, etc. 

There are many fine butterfly gardening reference texts that are specific to your area of the country; check in any bookstore or library. My personal favorites include:

  • Audobon Society's Field Guide to North American Butterflies, by Robert M. Pyle
  • Peterson's First Guide to Caterpillars, by Amy Bartlett Wright
  • Garden Butterflies of North America and How to Attract Them, by Rick Mikula
  • Butterfly Gardening, Luring Nature's Loveliest Pollinators to Your Yard, from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Press  

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