Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Butterfly Gardens Butterfly Gardens:
Luring Nature's Loveliest Pollinators to Your Yard

Reprinted from Butterfly Gardens: Luring Nature's Loveliest Pollinators to Your Yard, a handbook in Brooklyn Botanic Garden's 21-st Century Gardening Series. Copyright © 1995 Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Additional chapters and more information about this handbook are available on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's web site.

Designing Gardens for Butterflies
by Alice Yarborough

Gardening for butterflies is a suspenseful art, a bit like holding a picnic and wondering if your invited guests will show up. Butterflies are choosy insects. Any gardener can have aphids, but Red Admirals, Painted Ladies and Tiger Swallowtails insist that certain conditions be met.

Ample sunshine is the foremost consideration. Butterflies avoid shady areas. Ideally, your garden should have a southern exposure. Butterflies use early morning sunlight for basking on sun-warmed rocks, bricks or gravel paths. As morning temperatures rise, they begin visiting their favorite nectar flowers, but always in sunlit areas of the garden.

They prefer gardens that are sheltered from prevailing winds. If yours is not, consider planting a windscreen of lilac, mock orange, butterfly bush or viburnum -- all shrubs whose flowers are rich in nectar.

Fern Style vs Content

A butterfly garden's style is not as important as its content. It should offer nectar flowers throughout the growing season. Luckily, many of our most loved annuals and perennials are top-notch nectar sources. While native American species play an important role as host plants for hungry butterfly caterpillars, most adult butterflies have cosmopolitan tastes, supping as readily on the nectar-filled flowers of Hylotelephium spectabile, a Chinese native, as they do on our own native bee balm, Monarda didyma.

Butterflies seem especially attracted to gardens boasting generous patches of a given nectar flower. If you plant red valerian, Centranthus ruber, don't settle for one or two specimens. Try growing three or more patches of this especially popular nectar flower, and watch the swallowtails drift from clump to clump.

Using the plant encyclopedia in this handbook, you may want to start from scratch and populate an entire garden solely with nectar plants. Most readers, however, will wish to enhance an existing garden with the addition of butterfly-attracting flowers and shrubs.

Fern What to Plant

Remember that a given flower that attracts butterflies in one area may not necessarily prove a favorite with differing species of butterflies elsewhere in the country. For example, butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, although mobbed by butterflies in many sections of the U.S., is routinely ignored by those cruising my Pacific Northwest garden. Experiment and learn which flowers your local butterflies prefer.

Because I love old-fashioned cottage gardens, my own butterfly garden is filled with informal groups of plants of varied heights, including many low growers spilling forth onto the garden's gravel paths.

Grape hyacinths, pulmonaria, rock cress, azaleas, lilacs, wallflowers and pinks furnish nectar in early and mid spring. From late spring on through autumn, an abundance of excellent butterfly plants comes into bloom. Primula vialii, the June-blooming orchid primrose, is thickly interplanted with tall forget-me-nots. I use perennial alpine pinks, biennial sweet William and self-sowing annual candytuft to edge beds of red valerian and June-blooming yarrows such as pale yellow Achillea 'Taygetea' and Achillea 'Moonshine'. Tall perennial phlox and purple coneflowers are planted behind the red valerian to provide color and nectar in July and August.

Dominating one end of the garden, Joe-pye weed waves its butterfly-laden flowerheads on high for weeks in late summer. Planted in front of it, and sharing its bloom period, are patches of red monarda and the tall hybrid yarrow, 'Coronation Gold'. A large drift of purple-flowered anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum, completes the picture. Although the garden hosts a considerable variety of nectar flowers, when anise hyssop and Joe-pye weed are in bloom butterflies concentrate on them -- much as they mobbed other favorites earlier in the summer. Edging this bed are clumps of golden marjoram, oregano, rosy-flowered Hylotelephium spectabile 'Carmen' and the little Mexican daisy Erigeron karvinskianus -- all excellent nectar plants.

In September and October, purple hardy asters, backed with golden heleniums and Taiyo sunflowers, create a dazzling picture. In my garden, original species asters attract far more bees and butterflies than do the modern hybrids.

Gardeners in arid sections of the country will find many butterfly flowers that are drought tolerant. Yarrow, lantana, verbena, coreopsis, lavender, butterfly weed, sedum, erigeron, hardy asters and centranthus all thrive on dry, sunny sites.

Fern Making Mud Puddles

If your garden has a low, dampish area with indifferent drainage, plant moisture lovers like the rosy-flowered swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Joe-pye weed, forget-me-nots, monardas and meadow sweet (Filipendula palmata). Create a shallow puddle to attract swallowtails, blues, sulfurs and other butterflies that enjoy drinking at mud puddles. (They do so to obtain needed salts in their diet.) A sprinkling of table salt and the addition of some manure will increase the puddle's appeal for butterflies. Since salt harms plants, however, use a plastic liner or locate the puddle outside your flower border.

A butterfly gardener's bonus is that many nectar flowers are also popular with hummingbirds, bees and nocturnal hawk moths, such as the beautiful White-lined Sphinx.

Although many butterfly caterpillars subsist on leaves of native weeds and trees, you may discover certain ones within your flower garden as well. West Coast Ladies sometimes lay eggs on the leaves of ornamental mallows. Painted Ladies, which instinctively lay their eggs on thistle plants, also find an acceptable substitute in the hairy leaves of borage. Spying dozens of Painted Lady caterpillars on your borage plants does not mean the end result will be a crowd of butterflies emerging from their chrysalises in your garden. Alas! Such collections of juicy caterpillar morsels are handy food marts for wasps and hungry birds. Lucky is the caterpillar who survives to become a butterfly.

Fern Caterpillar Control

Don't fret too much about butterfly larvae chewing your prized plants to bits. Natural predators usually keep caterpillar populations under control. Also, the larvae of many butterfly species feed only on certain native plants and trees. Butterfly gardeners should not use insecticides and herbicides. Chemical warfare kills indiscriminately: Butterflies, their larvae and their natural predators are all destroyed. Organic gardeners tolerate a chewed leaf or blossom and handpick voracious insects or knock them off plants with water from the hose. You can also move offending butterfly caterpillars to other acceptable host plants nearby. I have transferred West Coast Lady larvae from ornamental mallow leaves to those of Malva neglecta, a common ground-hugging weed found in many gardens. Mostly, however, I welcome the occasional presence of butterfly caterpillars in my garden, sometimes carrying one indoors along with a spray of its food plant so that I can observe the miracle of metamorphosis.

Try keeping a brief journal of your butterfly-watching experiences. Buy a good field guide to help you identify your butterfly visitors as well as their eggs and caterpillars. Butterfly gardening can be a lifelong adventure that becomes more exciting as your knowledge grows.

Fern 10 Guidelines for Butterfly Gardening

  1. Watch butterflies in nearby areas to see which flowers they prefer.
  2. Grow these plants and ones recommended in this book.
  3. Position plants in a sunny place, sheltered from wind.
  4. Grow large clumps of the most favored species.
  5. Try to maintain diversity in height, color and blooming periods.
  6. Avoid or limit your use of pesticides.
  7. Provide a mud puddle in a sunny spot.
  8. Grow larval plants for butterflies that appear in your garden.
  9. Try some plants in containers for increased flexibility.
  10. Leave some undisturbed corners for weedy larval and nectar plants.

Alice Yarborough has contributed articles and photography on butterfly gardening to Fine Gardening magazine and The Butterfly Garden by Jerry Sedenko. Her article "Gardening for Wildlife" appears in the new Taylor Master Guide to Gardening.

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