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Flowers, Fruits, and Frass

Help the butterfly lifecycle: Plant a garden of pollinator favorites

a painted lady butterfly on a mexican sunflower

Around 100 different species of butterflies call Illinois home. Unfortunately, our fluttering insect populations have declined over the years due to environmental stresses like drought and loss of habitat. Butterflies are a lot like us, they need food, water, and a safe, comfortable space to survive. Make your landscape more butterfly-friendly with flowers of varying size, color, and bloom time.

Food, or in butterfly language, colorful, blooming flowers full of nectar, are the most important aspect in attracting butterflies to your garden. Butterflies need nectar-rich plants for nourishment and energy. Include a variety of both annual and perennial plants in your garden that will bloom in succession from spring through fall. To attract butterflies, plant in large masses or multiples of each kind of plant. Butterflies prefer purple, blue, yellow, pink, red, orange, and white flowers, but will visit every color of flower. Butterflies are typically more drawn to a flower’s shape than its color. They like a steady platform to land on and tubes filled with nectar to sip with their long, curly tongue.

Plants native to Illinois are reliable sources of nectar and pollen for pollinators while also being well-adapted to local growing conditions without requiring much maintenance. Perennial native plants that will support butterflies year after year include smooth blue aster, bee balm, Joe-Pye weed, milkweed, coneflower, black-eyed Susan, and prairie blazing star.  

Annual plants are also a terrific addition to your landscape for a pop of color and a consistent source of nectar from spring through fall. Butterfly favorites include sunflowers, salvia, cosmos, lantana, zinnias, and fragrant herbs. Even though butterfly bush sounds like the perfect pollinator addition (they do love it), avoid planting this non-native plant which can become invasive in our natural areas. 

Make sure to include host plants which are the food source for the larval (caterpillar stage) when gardening for butterflies. Each species has one exclusive plant (or a select few) where they lay their eggs, and the caterpillars eat the foliage. Host plants include milkweed (monarch), parsley, dill, fennel (black swallowtail), echinacea, rudbeckia (silvery checkerspot), and aster (painted lady and pearl crescent).  By including host plants in your landscape, you will experience the complete butterfly lifecycle in your own backyard. Of course, gardeners accept some plant damage when sharing plants with very hungry caterpillars. 

In addition to food, butterflies also need water to survive, although they do not visit large stands of water to drink. Instead, butterflies visit damp soil or mud; this is known as puddling. Create a butterfly puddler with a shallow dish, sand, soil, water, and flat stones.  

When designing your butterfly garden, you are helping to create a safe habitat for butterflies. Be sure to plant in a full-sun location that is protected from the wind by shrubs or a fence. Sunlight helps butterflies regulate their body temperature because they are cold-blooded. Flat stones, warmed by the sun, are a perfect spot for butterflies to bask in the warmth. If green space is in short supply, get creative with containers and create a mini butterfly garden on your patio or front porch. Support biodiversity and pollination this season with a garden for the butterflies. 

Photo Credit: Photo by Yuichi Kageyama on Unsplash

ABOUT THE AUTHORBrittnay Haag is a Horticulture Educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. Her work focuses on youth horticulture education, specifically through school gardens and Jr. Master Gardener programs. Brittnay provides leadership for three county Master Gardener programs and is responsible for developing community programs and providing expertise in horticulture and environmental sciences.