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Butterfly Gardening

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

Butterfly Gardening

Butterflies are such beautiful creatures and watching them flit from plant to plant brings joy and relaxation. This is why butterfly gardening continues to grow in popularity. Rhonda Ferree, Horticulture Educator with University of Illinois Extension, explains how to attract more butterflies to your own backyard.

"There are two different types of plants you can grow for butterflies: nectar food sources and larval food sources," says Ferree.

"Nectar sources attract the adult butterfly." Many different types of flowers will serve as a nectar source. Avoid planting flowers with double or triple petals (zinnias are an exception). Blue, purple, and white are the favored flower colors to attract butterflies with red probably the least favored color.

Some flowers seem to be "butterfly magnets." "In my yard, Butterfly bush, Purple coneflower, Joe-Pye weed, Black-eyed Susan, Lantana, and Sedum 'Autumn Joy' are literally covered with butterflies on a sunny day," said Ferree.

Four distinct life cycle stages--egg, larvae, pupae, and adult--govern a butterfly's life. "To see butterflies entire lifecycle come to life in your own yard, you will need plants for the larvae to eat." "Try planting a few extra plants for them or learn to share."

Providing larval food plants is where butterfly gardening diverts from all other types of gardening. With these plants you are feeding the caterpillars that eventually turn into adult butterflies. Rhonda knows that it is hard for many people to allow a critter to eat up their garden plants.

"However, each type of butterfly larvae eats a specific type of plant." Monarch caterpillars, for example, feed only on milkweed plants, while others feed only on certain trees or herbs. Swallowtail larvae specialize even further, with zebra swallowtails feeding only on pawpaw, spicebush swallowtails on spicebush, and black swallowtails on carrots, dill, or parsley.

"Butterfly gardens should be colorful, sunny, and sheltered from strong winds." Butterflies are sun worshipers and prefer areas in full sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Provide rocks and logs for the butterflies to bask. In addition to the variety of flower groups, your garden could include other attractants. Puddles will attract male butterflies to drink and some butterflies prefer to sip juices from rotting fruit.

Finally, reduce pesticide use. Butterflies are insects and are susceptible to most insecticides.

Plant your own butterfly garden this summer. Then, sit back and enjoy the show. Butterfly gardening is very rewarding. For more information on this or other horticultural issues, contact your local Extension office by visiting



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.