By Debbie Clark

Have you ever been working in your garden when a butterfly fluttered by? You probably stopped and watched it fluttering around your flowers. Butterflies are easy to attract to your garden if you provide the plants that they need to survive.

You can plant a butterfly garden from seed or mature plants purchased in containers. When planting a butterfly garden, plant host plants and nectar plants. Nectar plants provide a food source for the adult butterfly and the host plants provide the food source for the caterpillars. Different species of butterflies will have their own special nectar plants and host plant needs.

Plants that attract butterflies for nectar are asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), coneflower (Echinacea spp.), milkweed (Asclepias spp.), phlox (Phlox spp.), sunflower (Helianthus spp.), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), shasta daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), marigold (Tagetes spp.) and zinnia (Zinnia spp.) to name a few. Native plants like Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) or iron weed (Vernonia altissima) are a butterfly favorite. Butterflies also like shrubs like privet (Ligustrum spp.), button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.). If you plant butterfly bushes, remember they are invasive. Look for varieties that do not seed. Trees like chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) and flowering dogwood (Cornus) are great nectar sources.

Examples of host plants for caterpillars are passion vine (passiflora spp.), hollyhock (Alcea rosea), nasturtium, (Tropaeolum majus), milkweed (Asclepias spp.), tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis), violet (Violet spp.), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), mallow (Malva spp.), sunflower (Helianthus spp.) and shasta daisy (Leucanthemum spp.). Herbs like parsley (Petroselinum spp.), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and dill (Anethum graveolens) will help round out the garden. Trees like dogwood (Cornus), pawpaw (Asimina triloba), and sassaafras (Sassafras albidum) and shrubs like spicebush (Lindera benzoin) will provide host food for caterpillars.                                                                              

The life cycle of a butterfly is in four stages. It starts with the adult who lays the egg on a host plant. The egg hatches and the caterpillar or larva feeds on the host plant and grows very quickly. Then the caterpillar turns into a pupa or chrysalis. The final stage is when the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. The average time for this entire process is about one month depending on temperatures and it is called metamorphosis.

If you find caterpillars or damage to leaves on your plants in your garden, always do your research before you spray with pesticides. You may be destroying butterflies in their larval stage. The internet is a great source of valuable information.

You can add butterfly feeders with fresh cut up fruit like oranges, peaches, apples or bananas to your garden for butterflies to enjoy. Keep food fresh and feeders clean, but be aware you may attract some creatures you may not want in your garden. A saucer filled with moistened sand in the garden can make a place for “puddling”, drinking water and extracting minerals for your butterflies.

If you want butterflies in that garden, start planning and designing that butterfly garden for next year.


Debbie Clark is a North Carolina Master Gardener. Visit her blog at: