Black-eyed Susans are among the top-performing perennials that serve as nectar plants for butterflies, such as this American lady.
Photo by S. Cory Tanner
Gardeners often welcome butterflies to dine from their flowers, enjoying the winged beauty and lackadaisical fluttering of these colorful insects. In fact, many gardens are specifically designed to attract butterflies. Creating a successful butterfly garden is not difficult; you just need to provide some necessary components.
Butterflies visit gardens for two main reasons: to find nectar for adults and food for their larvae (caterpillars). Caterpillars feed mostly on leaves and are usually specific about which host plants they can eat. To have an abundance of butterflies in your garden, you must satisfy both needs.
Butterflies are attracted to nectar plants with bright flowers in red, yellow, orange, purple and pink. Large swaths of a single color are more likely to catch a passing butterfly’s attention than a single plant or a mixture of colors. Unlike hummingbirds, most butterflies can’t hover and must land to sip nectar. They prefer plants with large petals, like sunflowers, zinnias and black-eyed Susans, or large clusters of short, tubular flowers, like milkweed, lantana and yarrow, where they can land and feed.
Create your butterfly garden in full sun, especially morning through mid-afternoon. Butterflies prefer to feed in sunny locations. Avoid windy sites; they don’t fly well in strong winds. Because butterflies are active throughout the growing season, include a mixture of flowering nectar plant species from spring through fall.
Mix in host plants for caterpillars throughout the garden. Some host plants, like milkweed, may also provide nectar through their flowers. For others, like the pawpaw tree—the host plant for zebra swallowtails—only the leaves benefit the caterpillar.
The caterpillars of our state butterfly, the Eastern tiger swallowtail, dine on the leaves of several native S.C. trees, including tulip poplar and wild cherry. However, planting additional host plants to supplement natives will ensure an abundance and diversity of butterflies.
Some host plants are absolutely necessary to attract certain butterflies. To attract the crown jewel of butterflies, the monarch, you absolutely must have milkweed in your garden.
Many herbs serve as host plants, too, including parsley, dill and fennel, which are attractive to black swallowtails. But, remember, caterpillars eat the plants and have voracious appetites. I’ve seen black swallowtail caterpillars strip a parsley plant of its leaves in just three days! Plant extra, to ensure you have some herbs for yourself.
Insecticides are a no-no in butterfly gardens. Butterflies and their caterpillars are very sensitive. Even organic products like Bt are highly toxic to them. Fortunately, butterfly gardens attract other beneficial insects, which will help you manage pests.
Other tricks that help attract butterflies include having a puddling site. Butterflies need water, plus certain minerals and salts they don’t get from flowers. They can’t land in open water, like birdbaths or fountains, so a moist patch of soil or sand fulfills this need. Create your own by placing a shallow dish in the garden with damp sand. Add one-half to three-quarters cup of table salt to one gallon of sand to enhance its attractiveness. Butterflies also like a flat, reflective surface to sit and warm their bodies in the sun. Place flat stones in sunny spots throughout the garden for this.
With nectar sources, host plants, and puddling and sunning sites, your garden can become a butterfly mecca in no time.
S. CORY TANNER is an area horticulture agent for Clemson Extension based in Greenville County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Larval host plants for select butterfly species
Black swallowtail – Fennel, parsley, dill, Queen Anne’s lace
Buckeye – Snapdragon, plantain, verbena
Cloudless sulfur – Senna, cassia, clover
Gulf fritillary – Passion vine
Monarch – Milkweed species (orange butterfly weed, common milkweed, etc.)
Painted lady – Thistle, hollyhock, plantain
Silver-spotted skipper – Locust, American wisteria
Spicebush swallowtail – Spicebush, sassafras
Tiger swallowtail (S.C. state butterfly) – Wild cherry, tulip poplar, willow, red maple
Zebra swallowtail – Pawpaw
Top-performing butterfly nectar plants (*native)
Butterfly milkweed* – Perennial
Tall verbena – Perennial
Coneflower* – Perennial
Ironweed* – Perennial
Aster* – Perennial
Phlox* – Perennial
Goldenrod* – Perennial