University of Illinois Extension


Barbara Larson
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Winnebago & Boone counties

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Butterfly Gardening

Imagine your garden alive with color and life. Think of a bright yellow swallowtail dancing over the blossoms or watching the transition of caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly. Whether you create a haven for butterflies and moths or just add a few flowers attractive to butterflies, you will add an enchanting new dimension to your yard.

Land development and the widespread use of insecticides and herbicides has endangered many butterflies as their habitats have been degraded or destroyed. Butterflies and moths are significant pollinators, important in the food chain, and major indicators of environmental quality. A refuge for butterflies improves our world environmentally and aesthetically.

For the maximum number and variety of butterflies you should plant a "Butterfly Garden." If you don't have the space or inclination to dedicate an entire garden to butterflies, you can make your garden and yard butterfly friendly by applying the same principles and adding some plants throughout your yard.

When planning butterfly gardens remember the life cycle of the insects. It is not enough to only have nectar plants for the adults. The garden must also have food for hungry caterpillars. High quality gardens provide a variety of food sources for both caterpillars and adults. Caterpillar food plants are often common "weeds" so host plants aren't mandatory especially if you live in a rural area, but if your garden contains at least a few caterpillar plants the diversity and number of butterflies will increase. Adults lay eggs on plants that their offspring will eat. Many times these host plants are different than the nectar plants adults require. Caterpillars eat like a group of teenage boys, consuming anything in their path, so expect caterpillars to consume entire leaves of their host plant. Don't worry about the plant and enjoy watching the caterpillar's single-minded devotion to eating. (Remember one of the cardinal rules of butterfly gardening is no pesticides.)

Eventually the very plump caterpillar spins a cocoon or chrysalis for its amazing transformation into an adult butterfly or moth. If you are lucky and observe carefully, you will be able to watch the new adult struggle out of its cocoon, expand and dry its wings, then take its first flight. Flying requires tremendous amounts of energy that the butterfly gets from flower nectar. Butterflies prefer a varied diet and visit a number of different flowers.

So what should you plant? Generally if you keep in mind a few general principles on flower shape, color, and fragrance, butterflies will come to your yard. Because butterflies have a mouth similar to a drinking straw, they prefer easy access to nectar. They do not hover, so they also need a landing area on a plant with sturdy stems. The flat center disc, with or without interior petals, is a perfect landing platform and dining area. Members of the Composite or aster family are ideal. Examples are coneflowers, zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, black-eyed susans, and asters. Other good plants have clusters of small flowers, like butterfly weed, butterfly bush, alyssum, mints, verbena, and phlox. Most butterflies favor pink, lavender or purple blossoms, but some may visit other colors. For instance, swallowtails like reds and have been seen on yellow lantana.

Butterflies have a well developed sense of smell and are attracted to heavily perfumed flowers. They will pass over lightly scented varieties in favor of the most fragrant. Heirloom and old-fashioned varieties tend to have a stronger scent. If you are interested in attracting moths, add sweet-smelling, night blooming flowers like nicotiana. Although a mix of flower types are good, large masses of one type are better than a bed with lots of varieties but only one or two plants of each type. For example, an entire bed of purple coneflowers will draw more butterflies than a single coneflower mixed in with other butterfly plants.

Butterfly gardens should have full sun and protection from strong winds. An ideal location is on the south or southeast side of a tall building or fence on a south-facing slope. You can also use tall shrubs to achieve a similar affect. Butterflies, like all insects, are cold blooded and need to warm themselves in the sun before they are able to fly. One or two dark colored stones scattered in the garden or a brick or stone pathway are good butterfly warmers.

The final thing you may wish to add is a small wet spot. A large rock with a depression that can be kept full of water is one option. Another is filling a small container with sand, sinking it into the ground and keeping the sand wet. In the wild butterflies gather around these small wet sites, probably for salt.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources pamphlet on butterfly gardens lists several caterpillar and adult butterfly plants. For a free copy of the pamphlet send a stamped self addressed envelop to Butterfly Gardens, University of Illinois Extension, 4311 W. State St., Rockford, IL 61102. Your favorite bookstore may also have books on butterfly gardening and butterfly and moth identification. If you would like to see a butterfly garden next summer, stop by Klehm Arboretum to see the one University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners have developed.

February–March 2000: Are You Ready To Garden? | Pros & Cons Of Snow | Color In The Flower Garden | Butterfly Gardening

Past Issues

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