Want to give your landscape wings? Try a butterfly garden.
Butterfly gardens can be built from scratch or retrofitted into a more established landscape. But to be successful, the garden needs to possess two important elements: a pleasing palette of plants that work with the surrounding home and landscape; and the ability to—you guessed it—attracting butterflies.
This may seem like a fairly straightforward task if you assume that all butterflies are attracted to all flowers. But bear in mind there are thousands of species of butterflies, and each species tends to have a distinct group of plants that it prefers to live among for food and shelter.
What plants do butterflies eat?
The nectar sources for butterflies come from annuals, perennials, wildflowers, herbs, shrubs, and trees.
- Annuals and tender perennials known to attract many species of butterfly include: zinnias, white alyssum, marigolds, lantana, cosmos, nicotiana, petunias, ageratum, fuchsia, snapdragons, and sunflowers.
- There are many common herbs and wildflowers that attract butterflies, including: chives, spearmint, Anaphalis, Verbena, dandelions, clover, Queen Anne’s Lace, butterfly weed, goldenrod, and thistle.
- Some perennials for butterfly gardens include Daisies, Phlox, Aster, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Helenium, and Lavandula.
- Shrubs, vines, and trees for butterfly gardens include Abelia, Buddleia, Clethra, Lindera, Malus, Prunus, Spirea, Vaccinium, and Wisteria.
The popular concept of a mixed border—combining annuals, perennials, herbs, roses, shrubs, vines, and ornamental trees, all underplanted with bulbs—will provide a long bloom season as well as a variety of food sources and forms of shelter that will attract a large assortment of butterflies over a long period.
It's important to note that butterflies also have a powerful sense of smell. Much like dogs, the scents that butterflies find attractive aren’t always scents that humans find appealing. For example, rotting fruits and vegetables are gourmet treats for some butterflies, while others are drawn to the more pleasant aromas of clover or wild violets. However, toxins are a universal turn-off, and butterflies are extermely vulberable to pesticides and herbicides, so avoid using them whenever possible.
Do butterflies prefer sun or shade?
Like plants, there are some species of butterflies that prefer the shade and others that prefer a sun. But even sun-loving butterflies appreciate the presence of a shaded shelter—a place where they're safe not only from sun but from wind, predators, and the trampling feet of children. Grassy areas in or around the garden can also serve as a place for butterflies to lay their eggs.
Not many butterflies overwinter in extreme climates, but those that do (sometimes called "hibernators") will also benefit from winter shelter—mounds of ivy growing over old tree stumps; piles of logs or large, dead treebranches; a stack of old bricks or chunks of concrete. Some butterflies will hibernate in old trees, while others will welcome the presence of specially designed “butterfly houses” as winter shelter.
Are butterflies neat freaks or clutterbugs?
Some theme gardens need meticulous care and a neat, formal appearance to create the intended ambience. Butterflies, on the other hand, like their surroundings to be a little messy. If you can live with keeping a section of your garden somewhat overgrown with grass, wildflowers, trees, and/or shrubs, you will probably find more butterflies in this little wilderness than among carefully tended flower beds. In an older, established landscape, look for a site that offers shelter—an overgrown fence, a clump of trees, the base of a sloping lot, or a rocky outcropping with a flat, grassy spot nearby—to establish your butterfly garden.
Do butterflies prefer wet or dry conditions?
Rocky paths muddied by a sprinkler or parts of the garden where water pools on flat rocks attracts many species of butterfly the same way a luxury spa attracts movie stars. Research indicates that minerals released through the water’s evaporation process, primarily sodium, may play a vital part in the mating habits of butterflies. For this reason some experts suggest putting small salt licks in a butterfly garden.