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The How To's of Butterfly Gardening

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The forever increasing popularity of butterfly gardening got my interest peaked about correct, or incorrect, ways to increase butterfly traffic in my garden.  I always knew that certain plants would attract a few more visitors, and always kept a patch milkweed growing for my monarchs, but my curiosity got the better of me, and sent me out on a hunt to learn more.  Walking into the book store, I was happy to see by the number of books on the topic. It proved I wasn't the only one who went on this journey.

Reserving just a small area of your garden for a butterfly habitat, will bring you hours of pleasure when you watch the many species of winged visitors that fly in to enjoy it. 

Get to Know your Visitors

Get started with your butterfly garden by doing a little research on the butterflies of your area.  A simple internet search with your state's name and the word "butterflies" typed after it will give you a collection of information designed just for you.  Make a list of the more common butterflies, and if you are feeling adventurous, the rarer ones to your area. This will help you decide which plants to choose for their habitat.

Location, Location, Location

Now that you know the species you want to attract, we need to find a suitable location.  Find a spot that has plenty of sunshine (at least 6 hours) and healthy, fertile soil.  Remember that once the garden is established, it will be difficult to make soil corrections, so it's advantageous to have good soil when you begin. Another thing to consider is a water supply, try to find a spot that will make it convenient to care for the plants once they're established. Finally, a site protected from winds is best because butterflies avoid gusty areas.

What to Plant

The trick to attracting a variety of butterflies is to plant diverse groups of plants.  Decide on plants that are have different colors, sizes, bloom seasons and foliage types. Your goal is to plant flowers and plants to be both larvae (caterpillar) food and a nectar source. As often as possible, try to find plants that are native to your area and be mindful of exotic species.  This will help keep your local butterflies healthy and happy. If you have questions about plants native to your area, contact your local Extension office.  I am sure they will be more than happy to help you select the perfect plants for your garden. Be sure to plant enough for larvae to eat.  A good rule of thumb to remember is that a caterpillar will eat it's weight in food, every two days. Check the chart below for a few common plants that are known to attract butterflies.


Source: Ohio State University: The table below lists the plant species, which butterfly species it attracts, what environmental conditions are needed to grow it, and which season the plant produces flowers. An asterisk (*) indicates that the plant also attracts hummingbirds.


Plant Species Season Description Growth Requirements Butterflies It Attracts
New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae) Summer-Fall 3-7', perennial, violet 1" flowers Moist low fertile soils, full sun Variety; red admiral, painted lady, monarch, pearl crescent, whites, sulphurs
Sky Blue Aster (Aster azureus) Summer-Fall 24-36", perennial, blue flowers Moist or dry soils, shade tolerant Pearl crescent, whites, sulphurs
Smooth Aster (Aster laevis) Summer-Fall 2-4', perennial, violet flowers Well drained soils, sunny areas Red admiral, pearl crescent, whites, sulphurs
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)* Summer 2-5', perennial, scarlet flowers in tubular whorls Rich to moist soils, full sun to light shade Variety; painted lady, cabbage, milbert's tortoise shell, mourning cloak, eastern tiger swallowtail
Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)* Summer 2-4', perennial, lavender-pink flowers Dry calcareous soils, full sun cabbage, to light shade Variety; painted lady, milbert's tortoise shell
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) Summer-Fall 18-48", perennial, yellow flowers Moist soils, sunny areas Whites, sulphurs, brushfoots, skippers, blues
Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) Summer 1-6', perennial, purple flowers in spikes Moist, acidic soils, full sun Painted lady, fritillaries, skippers, sulphurs, coppers, checkerspots
Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera) Summer-Fall 2-4', perennial, purple flowers, broad flower head Dry sandy soils, full sun Painted lady, fritillaries, skippers, sulphurs, coppers, checkerspots
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)* Late Summer-Early Fall 1-2', perennial, various flower colors, drought tolerant Grows well in most any area Variety; monarch, red admiral, swallowtails, skippers, larvae
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)* Summer-Fall 2-5', perennial, red flower Moist soils, partial shady areas Best for hummingbirds, bound to attract variety of butterflies
Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)* Spring-Summer 1-3', perennial, red to pink, unique flower structure Sunny to shady areas Best for hummingbirds, bound to attract variety of butterflies
Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) Summer-Fall 2-4', perennial, white flowers in flat cluster Moist soils, open areas Variety; painted lady, red admiral, tiger swallowtail, monarch, silver-spotted skipper
Greater Coreopsis (Coreopsis major)* Summer 18-36", yellow flowers, long bloom Dry soils, sunny areas Variety; eastern tailed blue, spring azure, pearl crescent, viceroy, red admiral
Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) Spring-Summer 1-2', perennial, pink flowers Moist well-drained soils, partial shade Skippers, eastern tailed blue
Goat's Beard (Aruncus dioicus) Spring-Summer 3-7', white flowers in branching cluster Rich soils, light shade, shade tolerant Variety; spring azure
Goldenrod (Solidago) Summer-Fall 1-5' perennial, yellow flowers Well drained soils, sunny areas Sulphurs, whites, coppers, monarch, hairstreaks, viceroy, painted lady
Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) Summer-Fall 3-4', yellow flowers, rigid and upright Well drained soils, full sun Monarch, viceroy
Iron Weed (Vernonia noveboracensis) Summer-Fall Up to 6', perennial, purple flowers Various moist soils, full sun Variety; tiger swallowtail, monarch, great spangled fritillary, silver-spotted skipper, spicebush swallowtail
Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) Fall 5-10', perennial, large yellow flowers Moist fertile soils Variety; monarch, painted lady, checkerspots
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)* Summer-Fall 2-5', perennial, orange and yellow flowers Moist soils, tolerates full sun to full shade Best for hummingbirds, bound to attract variety of butterflies
Joe Pye Weed (Lupinus perennis) Late Summer 2-6', perennial, pink to lavender flowers Moist soils, open areas Variety; painted lady, red admiral, monarch, silver-spotted skipper, swallowtails
Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) Spring 8-24", perennial, blue pea flower Dry acidic soils Larvae
Maximillian's sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii) Summer-Fall 3-7', perennial, large yellow flowers Drought tolerant, full sun Variety; monarch, painted lady, checkerspots
Hoary Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum) Summer-Fall 1-3', perennial, light purple flowers Dry soils, full sun Variety; red admiral, eastern tailed blue, pearl crescent, spring azure, sulphurs, whites
Ox-eye Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) Summer 3-6', yellow flowers Moist soils, full sun Variety; atlantis fritillary, European skipper, early hairstreak
PawPaw (Asiminia triloba) Spring Small broad-leafed tree Moist soils, sun to light shade Larvae, swallowtails
Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) Summer 12-36", perennial, flat clusters of white flowers Dry soils, sunny areas, drought tolerant Small butterflies, painted lady
Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata)* Spring 10-20", perennial, blue to purple showy flowers Fertile soils, well-drained, partial shade Larvae, swallowtails, sulphurs, painted lady, viceroy
Moss Phlox (Phlox subulata) Spring Creeping ground cover, pink flowers Dry acidic soils, shady areas Small butterflies
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) Summer-Fall Up to 4' hardy perennial, purple flowers, heat tolerant Rich, well drained soil sunny areas Variety; tiger swallowtail, viceroy, great spangled fritillary, whites, hairstreaks, blues, skippers
Royal Catchfly (Silene regia)* Summer 3-4', perennial, red flowers Sandy, dry soils, full sun Best for hummingbirds, bound to attract variety of butterflies
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) Spring Fragrant shrub, white flowers, produces fruit Moist soils, sunny areas Variety; spring azure, larvae
Sweet White Violet (Viola blanda) Spring 3-5", perennial, white flower Moist, fertile areas, light shade Larvae
Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) Spring 3-8", perennial, blue-white flowers Moist soils, sunny or partial shady areas Larvae
March Blue Violet (Viola cucullata) Spring 3-8", perennial, blue flowers, groundcover Moist to wet soils, shade tolerant Larvae
Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica) Spring 1-2', purple Rich soils, sunny nodding flowers to shady areas Variety
Yarrow (Achillea species) Summer-Fall 12-24", small white flowers Dry soils, full sun Variety; coppers, hairstreaks, skippers, sulphurs



20 Common Butterflies

Butterfly species Nectar Plants Larvae Plants
Spicebush Swallowtail Milkweed, butterfly weed, purple coneflower, joe-pye weed Spicebush, sassafras
Eastern Black Swallowtail Milkweed, butterfly weed, phlox Parsley
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly weed, bee balm, phlox, milkweed, blazing star Black cherry, tulip tree, ash, spicebush
Cabbage White Mints, asters, bee balm Cabbage, mustards
Checkered White Mustards Cabbage, mustards
Clouded Sulphur Phlox, milkweed, goldenrod, asters, blazing star Leguminous plants
Orange Sulphur Yarrow, asters, mints, goldenrods Alfalfa, clovers
Eastern Tailed Blue Mints, yarrow, milkweed, wild geranium Leguminous plants
Spring Azure Mints, milkweed, spicebush Dogwoods, viburnums, black cherry
Great Spangled Fritillary Milkweed, purple coneflower, joe-pye weed, ironweed, black-eyed susan, bee balm Violets
Pearl Crescent Black-eyed susan, milkweed, geranium, mints, asters Asters
Question Mark Feeds on rotten fruits, milkweed Elm, hackberry
Comma Feeds on rotten fruits Nettles, elm
Mourning Cloak Milkweed, bee balm Cottonwood, elm, hackberry
Red Admiral Milkweed, mints, asters, phlox, coreopsis Nettles
Painted Lady Joe-pye weed, blazing star, bee balm, goldenrod, phlox, asters Pearly everlasting
Red-spotted Purple Feeds on rotten fruits Black cherry, hawthorn
Viceroy Asters, joe-pye weed, goldenrod, phlox Willow, poplars, black cherry
Monarch Milkweed, butterfly weed, joe-pye weed, goldenrod, asters, blazing star Milkweed
Silver-Spotted Skipper Milkweed, blazing star, purple coneflower, joe-pye weed Leguminous plants

charts by Kathi L. Borgmann, Graduate Associate
Amanda D. Rodewald, Ohio State Extension Specialist, Wildlife


Finishing Touches

Once your plants are all tucked into the soil, there are a few extra things to consider to help create a wonderful habitat for butterflies. Consider burying a few shallow lids or bowls to create small puddles. University of Florida suggests to "bury a shallow potted plant saucer to its rim in an area receiving full sun in the butterfly garden. Fill the saucer with coarse pine bark or stones and fill to overflowing with water. The butterflies are able to drink from the cracks between the pine bark pieces or the stones while the mosquito larvae have a difficult time becoming established.  Occasionally adding a small piece of over-ripe fruit, some stale beer, or a tablespoonful of composted cow manure or leaf compost to the puddle will provide the salts and amino acids that the butterflies need."  Butterflies will be more likely to visit if their is a place for them to drink water. 

Final Consideration

While it will be difficult to eliminate predation by birds, frogs, spiders, dragonflies and other insects, you can help by avoiding planting your butterfly garden near known predator habitats.  An example is to always do your best to keep fire ant hills out of and away from the butterfly garden.  They will substantially affect the butterfly population. After your garden is established, avoid using any pesticide that will be harmful to your flying friends.

Source: Ohio State University and University of Florida

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