University of Illinois Extension

Create a Butterfly Garden

With careful planning, home gardeners can create an inviting habitat that will allow butterflies to flourish, said Susan Grupp, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“You should start planning now for a butterfly garden,” said Grupp. “Whether you add some favorite butterfly plants to an existing garden or start with a new garden designed just for butterflies, you will be amazed how easy it is to attract them to your yard.”

The first thing to do is select a warm, sunny spot for the butterfly garden.

“Butterflies are cold-blooded and need sunshine to warm their bodies,” she explained. “Locate your garden near a wall, a fence, or even some evergreens so when they come to visit, they are not fighting a strong or chilling wind. This will help them to conserve energy.

“A sheltered garden will protect flowers from being tossed and blown, too.”

Butterflies need body temperatures of 85 to 100 degrees F to fly well. When temperatures are cooler, they warm up by basking in the sun.

“Have you ever seen a butterfly perched on the ground, very still, with its wings opened wide?” asked Grupp. “This allows their dark bodies to absorb the heat. Other butterflies, such as sulfurs, close their wings and turn sideways so their darker wing base absorbs the heat. Some species reflect heat from their wings to their bodies.”

In order to help butterflies stay warm, Grupp suggested including a resting spot that heats up, such as dark-colored rocks or boulders. They should be placed where sunlight heats them up early in the morning and/or late afternoon.

“When butterflies can keep warm and fly longer, they can feed more, search longer for mates, and potentially lay more eggs. All of this can lead to more butterflies,” said Grupp.

Butterflies are vulnerable to pesticides. If you want to attract butterflies, never use pesticides. The bacterial insecticide, Bacillus thuringiensis “kurstaki” (Btk) kills moth and butterfly larvae, so it should not be used.

Four distinct life cycle stages--egg, larvae, pupae, and adult--govern a butterfly’s life.

“Decide if you want to attract the adults or the larva--caterpillars--or both,” said Grupp. “Adults feed primarily on the nectar of a wide variety of flowers. Larva feed on leaves--and some flowers and seed--of a more limited range of plants.

Nectar Plants That Attracts Adult Butterflies

Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum)
Cosmos (Cosmos Bipinnatus), ‘Sensation’
Heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens)
Lantana (Lantana camara)
Marigold, French marigold (Tagetes patula)
Mexican sunlower (Tithonia rotundifolia)
Nicotiana, flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata)
Pentas (Pentas lanceolata) - subshrub
Petunia (Petunia x hybrida)
Scabiosa, pincushion flower (Scabiosa atropurpurea)
Statice (Limonium sinuatum)
Verbena (Verbena x hortensis, V. x hybrida)
Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)

Perennials - Early Season
Allium (Allium spp.) - bulb
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica) - biennial, perennial
Perennials - Midseason
Bee balm (Monarda didyma)
Black-eyed Susan, gloriosa daisy (Rudbeckia spp.) - biennial, perennial
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Catmint (Nepeta mussinii)
Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)
Lavendar (Lavandula angustifolia)
Liatris, blazing-star, gay-feather (Liatris spp.)
Lily (spp.)
Mint (Mentha spp.)
Phlox (Phlox spp.)
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Red valerian (Centranthus ruber)
Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
Veronica (Veronica spp.)
Yarrow (Achillea filipendulia)

Perennials - Late Season
Aster (Aster spp.)
Globe thistle (Echinops exaltatus)
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium spp.)
Obedient plant (Physotegia virginiana)
Sedum, (Sedum spectabile)
Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Butterfly Larval Plants

Butterfly Larval Food
Black Swallowtail carrots, parsley, dill
Tiger Swallowtail wild cherry, birch, poplar, ash, apple trees, tulip tree
Monarch Butterfly milkweeds, butterfly weed
Great Spangled Fritillary violets
Buckeye snapdragon
Mourning Cloak willows, elms
Viceroy pussy willow, plums, cherries
Red-Spotted Purple willows, poplars
Hackberry Butterfly hackberry

“To attract as many adults as possible, plant large groups of flowers. Include plants that bloom throughout the growing season so butterflies have a choice from spring to fall. Also masses of flowers tend to attract more visitors than small plantings.”

Adults visit many kinds of flowers, but some flowers seem to be “butterfly magnets.”

“In my yard, Butterfly bush, Purple coneflower, Joe-Pye weed, Black-eyed Susan, Lantana, Brazilian verbena, and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ are literally covered with butterflies on a sunny day,” said Grupp.

“For caterpillars--the larva stage, you will need to choose plants which attract the adult for egg laying. Adults are choosy and specific. Don’t forget, caterpillars will be chewing on foliage, so remember to plant enough for you and the caterpillars."