It’s easy to plan a garden that will encourage butterflies to visit. The key is to provide a combination of nectar plants on which the butterflies can feed and larval food plants that will encourage them to reproduce in the area.
Butterflies are most active throughout the summer, particularly late summer, so plan your garden to have plenty of nectar-producing flowers over the course of the summer and early fall.
Most butterflies like full sunshine, so yard gardens or plants on the deck should be in full sun if possible. However, if you live near the woods, you may be able to attract members of the few species that prefer shade.
Overall, butterflies prefer flowers that are brightly coloured, have strong scents, and are native to the local area. Butterflies show the most interest in flowers that are dark pink, purple, red, orange, or yellow.
Different butterfly species have their own food preferences, but there are certain plants and flowers that are appealing to a wide variety of butterflies, including:
- Hibiscus (pictured to the right)
- Marigold (pictured to the right)
- Swamp Milkweed
- Zinnia (pictured to the right)
- Blazing Star
- Purple Coneflower
- Black-Eyed Susan
- Joe-Pye Weed
- Egyptian Star Flower
- Butterfly Bush
- Butterfly Weed
- Oxeye Daisy
It’s a good idea to plant a variety of different nectar sources in order to attract many different types of butterflies.
Larval Food Plants
If you provide lots of plants that can serve as food for butterfly larvae, you will attract female butterflies and may even encourage entire butterfly colonies to establish in your area. The offspring of a number of North American butterflies feed on certain vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, dill, alfalfa, and clover. However, different species have different preferences, so it’s a good idea to learn about the preferred foods of the butterflies that you wish to attract.
Monarch butterfly young prefer milkweed, and a number of other species like thistles or nettles. The larvae of many species also feed on certain trees, such as oaks, aspens, willows, and cherries.
Butterflies usually lay eggs in late spring, and caterpillars pupate after 3 or 4 weeks, so it’s important to have plenty of host plants in the late spring and early summer. After 9 to 14 days in their cocoons, caterpillars emerge as adult butterflies.
Butterflies are attracted to puddles, especially when sweet drinks are added to the water. A puddle can be easily made by burying an open container (such as a bowl or bucket) to its brim, adding sand or gravel until it’s nearly full, and then filling the remaining space with water, a drink that contains fructose, or stale beer.
Another way to attract butterflies is to leave a piece of overripe fruit, particularly a grapefruit or an orange, out for a few days so that it spoils, and then place it on a hanging plate feeder. Plate feeders can be purchased or made at home using a thin plastic plate or the lid from a large ice cream tub or Tupperware container through which you can punch holes to hang it with wire or twine. Alternatively, you can use a ceramic or metal plate and hang it using a macramé-style hanger.
A plate feeder is a great way to make use of fruit that has gone off. Add slices of fruit that is overripe or spoiling. Butterflies are particularly fond of oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, peaches, nectarines apples, and bananas, especially bananas that have been stored in the freezer and then thawed so that they become black and mushy. Once you have added the fruit, hang the feeder and wait for visiting butterflies to discover it. You can increase the likelihood that butterflies will find your feeder by attaching large, brightly coloured plastic or silk flowers to its edges or to the string or wire that you use to hang it, and by hanging it near large, aromatic real flowers.
Clean the feeder regularly, and replace fruit when it dries out or becomes moldy. You can keep it moist for longer by adding fruit juice. Plate feeders may attract other types of bugs, so you may not want to hang them right next to your windows or doors.
Another option is to make a nectar sponge feeder:
- Decorate a glass jar by gluing brightly coloured silk or plastic artificial flowers to it or painting bright colours on its exterior.
- Use waterproof electrical tape in a colour that butterflies like (such as red) to attach artificial flowers. This tape is available in most hardware stores.
- Punch a small hole in the jar lid by placing it on a piece of wood and hammering a large nail through its center.
- Remove the lid, fill the jar with butterfly nectar. To make butterfly nectar, mix 1 cup of boiling water with 1/4 cup organic cane sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Cool the nectar thoroughly before adding it to the feeder. Large batches can be made and stored in the fridge for 3-4 weeks. This nectar recipe can also be used for hummingbird feeders.
- Stuff a piece of cotton or a clean sponge into the hole on the inside of the lid. The sponge or cotton should be a tight fit – trim as necessary. Butterflies will suck the nectar through the cotton or sponge.
- Screw the lid back on tightly, and use wire or twine to hang it upside down (so that the hole faces the ground) in an open, sunny area, ideally near colourful flowers.
Clean the butterfly feeder regularly (at least once a week and preferably every 3 days) using very hot water and a light mild detergent solution to prevent mold from forming. Rinse very thoroughly with pure water before refilling with nectar.
Natural Pest Control
When caring for a butterfly garden, it is important not to use pesticides or anything else that might be harmful to butterflies. Instead, you can plant marigold and mint, which act as natural insect repellents. If you have a large yard, planting onions throughout at random intervals will repel pests and stop the spread of root maggots.
Another method of natural pest control is attracting ladybugs to your garden. Plants that draw ladybugs include Angelica, Caraway, Cilantro, Coreopsis, Cosmos (particularly white), Dandelions, Dill, Fennel, Geraniums, Tansy, and Yarrow. Ladybugs can also be purchased from certain garden supply stores.
Butterfly Plant Gallery
- Bailey, S. (n.d.). “How to Make Butterfly Gardens.” University of Kentucky, Kentucky State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Kentucky Counties.
- BirdDigest.com. (2007). “Butterfly Feeders.”
- ButterflyHouse.org, a division of the Missouri Botanical Garden. (2008). “Butterfly Gardening.”
- Government of Canada – Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility. (2003). “Butterfly Gardening.” Reproduced with permission from The Butterflies of Canada by Layberry, R.A.; Hall, P.W.; & Lafontaine, J.D., University of Toronto Press, 1998.
- Government of Yukon. (2007). “Natural Pest Control for Your Garden.”
- Hamir, A. (2008). “Luring Ladybugs into Your Garden – Garden Pest Tip.” GardenGuides.com.
- HomeTrainingTools.com (2007) “Make a Butterfly Feeder.”
- Jones, R. (n.d.) “Butterfly Nectar Plants.” Thebutterflysite.com.
- Lake, J. (2008). “Butterfly Gardens: How to Make Butterfly Food and Butterfly Feeders.” AllFreeCrafts.com.