Fly By Flowers – Butterfly Gardening

“A butterfly goes wherever it pleases, and pleases wherever it goes.”

Butterflies have been called “flying flowers” and gardeners around the world welcome them to their garden. Gardens privileged by the presence of butterflies offer a variety of plants to provide nectar for adults and food for the caterpillars. Adult butterflies don’t eat; they only drink. They ‘smell’ with their antenna and ‘taste’ with their feet.

Their offspring, caterpillars, do almost nothing but eat. Caterpillars eat until they grow too big for their skin, and then shed it, several times.

Plants with clusters of flowers, or large flowers are more attractive to flutter -byes than those small, single flowers. Planting several plants of the same kind in mass attracts more butterflies, since more nectar’s available at a single stop. They see large splashes of color more easily than small points of individual flowers. Butterflies are particularly attracted to red, orange, yellow, and purple flowers. Big showy flowers bred for size are often poor nectar sources.

Perennial mums, coreopsis, phlox and hollyhocks attract butterflies. Annuals like petunias, salvia, impatiens and zinnias are also favorites. Cosmos, sunflowers snapdragons verbena will invite fluttering guests. Purple coneflowers, sedum and Yarrow traditionally attract the most kinds of butterflies. Gardens with flowers that bloom at different times provide nectar from spring through fall.

Shrubs like butterfly bush, lilac, spirea and viburnum provide butterfly habititats and good, though short term, nectar sources.

Many butterflies seek out herbs as nectar sources and as host plants for their eggs. Dill, fennel, mint, parsley and chives, can be butterfly incubators or seasoning.
Butterflies prefer sunny settings and areas sheltered from high winds. Rocks or bricks encourage pupation sites and basking in the sun.

Butterflies go through a four-stage developmental process known as metamorphosis -egg, larva or caterpillar, pupa or chrysalis, and adult. Gardeners who understand a butterfly's life cycle will be more successful attracting the winged wonders. Pesticides, specifically insecticides, can kill butterflies

Depending on the species, a butterfly’s life cycle ranges from a month to a year. The most common butterflies are multiple-brooded, providing a continuous array of color and activity.
Butterflies require food plants for larval stages and nectar plants for the adult stage. Some larvae feed on specific host plants; others will feed on a variety of plants. The mama butterfly knows exactly which plants will provide nutrition for her offspring. Her only mission in her brief lifespan is to reproduce before she dies and she doesn’t want her babies to starve after hatching.

Both larval host plants and adult nectar plants should be included in a butterfly garden.

Not all butterflies migrate for cold weather. Some species experience diapause, or hibernation, that lets them survive winter in their usual habitats. Butterflies survive the cold in one of their four life stages, depending on their species.

Diapause is activated as daylight hours become shorter, in the fall. Metabolic and respiratory rates decrease and activity is on hold. Some species overwinter as winged adults. Some, like Swallowtails, enter diapause as pupae. They require a safe place to hibernate in whatever life stage they are in, like a garden or backyard. A small pile of fallen autumn leaves or small pieces of wood or board makes a butterfly’s winter lodge. Research indicates, sadly, that butterflies don’t use the decorative butterfly houses that hopeful gardeners treasure.

There are over 20,000 different kinds of butterflies in the world. With the right plants, gardeners can attract a variety for their viewing pleasure.

Host a Garden Party For Butterflies


Anyone who can plant a regular garden can plant a butterfly garden. The only difference is the type of plants; some are better butterfly attractors than others. A butterfly garden can be small or large. The entire yard can serve as a butterfly garden and support the complete butterfly lifecycle, or set out a variety of colorful, butterfly-attracting plants in a few pots, or even a single box.

There are a few simple rules to ensure the “garden party” is well attended.
Plant the garden in a sunny location and, since butterflies don’t do well in windy locations, plant in a protected area. Making or adding an attractive windbreaker, like a trellis, will shelter them and enhance the garden.

Butterflies are attracted to gardens with clusters of color. Plant flowering plants with similar colors together – red is the favorite and yellow gets their attention, but they see many more colors than humans, so variety is a must.

Butterflies and pesticides do not mix – the garden must be pesticide free.

Create a more inviting ambience by including rocks and water sources like ponds or puddles and butterflies will take the opportunity to sun themselves.

Make certain shrubs are near so butterflies can retreat to a protected area on cloudy days and during rain showers.

For a butterfly garden party to support the entire butterfly lifecycle both nectar and larval plants are necessary. Nectar plants provide food for the adult butterfly, while larval plants are a food source for caterpillars.

Butterflies tend to be picky eaters, and each type has limited preferences. The Buckeye Butterfly uses snapdragons as larval food and aster, milkweed and coreopsis for nectar. Commas like nettle and elm for their larval stage and go to butterfly bushes and dandelions for nectar.

Great Swallowtail larva eat from citrus trees and prickly ash but fly to lantana, milkweed, lilac, and azaleas for nectar. Painted Ladies feast on daisies and hollyhock in the larval stage, but like goldenrod, milkweed, butterfly bushes and zinnias for nectar. If a Great Spangled Fritillary visits, have violets for their larval stage and milkweed, black-eyed Susan, or verbena for nectar. Monarchs, of course, rely solely on milkweed for their larval stage, but they enjoy butterfly bush, goldenrod, thistle, and even mints for nectar.

If in doubt which visitors will attend, create a menu to satisfy the most popular tastes. Plant and serve Butterfly Bush, Brazilian Verbena, Parsley, dill, fennel, milkweed, coneflowers, Lantana, Cosmos and single Zinnias. For drinks, plan on fresh water for the grateful guests and perhaps a strawberry daiquiri for the hardworking hostess.