Plants that Attract Butterflies

Who doesn’t love watching butterflies (can we call them fluttering flowers?) fly from one flower to the next on a sunny day?  These are the best plants that attract butterflies to your garden.

The Best Plants for a Butterfly Garden:

A Black Swallowtail Butterfly feeding on the sweet nectar from a Blazing Star

Aster family

Blazing stars (Liatris spp.)

Coneflowers (Rudbeckia spp. and Echinacea spp. aka purple coneflower)

Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)

Asters (Aster spp.)

Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)

Vanilla plants (Carphephorus spp.)

Goldenasters (Chrysopsis spp. and Pityopsis spp.)

Goldenrods (Solidago spp.)

Mistflower, Conoclinum coelestinum

Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium fistulosum)

Ironweed (Vernonia spp.)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly on Bee Balm Flowers

Mint family

Bee balms (Monarda spp.)

Sages (Salvia spp.)

Verbena family

Verbenas (Glandularia spp. and Verbena spp.)

Lantana (Lantana spp.)

Golden dewdrop (Duranta repens)

Porterweed (Stachytarphaeta urticifolia)

Butterfly bush family

Butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.)

Pugster Pink® Butterfly Bush ( Buddleia x)

Bellflower family

Cardinal flower and other lobelias (Lobelia spp.)

Phlox family

Phlox (Phlox spp.) Monarch butterfly on Pentas flower at the Butterfly World attraction in Coconut Creek, Florida

Madder family

Pentas (Pentas lanceolata)

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Firebush (Hamelia patens)

Honeysuckle family

Glossy abelia (Abelia grandiflora)

Legume family

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Holly family

Hollies (Ilex spp.)

Butterfly Host Plants for Caterpillars

If your pollinator friendly garden doesn’t include caterpillar host plants, it is just a fast-food stop for adult butterflies. They won’t hang around if they don’t find the appropriate plant to lay eggs on to create their caterpillar babies.

The rose, legume, and laurel families include many important host plants for butterfly larvae.

Rose family

Plums, cherries, Carolina laurel-cherry (Prunus spp.) – tiger swallowtail, red-spotted purple

Legume family

Cassias, sennas, Partridge pea, (Cassia spp.) – sulphurs, hairstreaks, sleepy orange

Beggar’s ticks (Desmodium spp.) – long-tailed skipper

Clovers (Trifolium spp.) – dogface

Garden beans (Phaseolus spp.) – long-tailed skipper

Laurel family

Laurels, red bay, sassafras, spicebush (Lauraceae) – palamedes and spicebush swallowtails

Birthwort family

Dutchman’s pipe, Calico flower, Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia spp.) – polydamus and pipevine swallowtails

Sunflower family

Shepherd’s needle (Bidens alba) – sulphurs

Sunflowers (Helianthus) – painted lady
Swallowtail caterpillar on a fennel plant

Carrot family

Fennel, dill, parsley, water hemlock (Apiaceae) – black swallowtail

Citrus family

Citrus trees, Hercules’ club, toothache tree, hoptree (Rutaceae)– giant swallowtail

Willow family

Coastal Plain Willow (Salix caroliniania) – viceroy

Verbena family

Frogfruit, Phyla nodiflora – white peacock, buckeye, crescents

Passionflower family

Passionflower (Passiflora spp.) – fritillaries, zebra longwing

Pawpaw family

Pawpaw (Asimina spp.) – zebra swallowtail

Elm family

Elms (Ulmus spp.) – question mark,  eastern comma,  mourning cloak,  tawny emperor

Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) – hackberry and snout butterflies, tawny emperor, question mark

Magnolia family

Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) – tiger swallowtail

Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) – tiger swallowtail
Monarch butterfly feasting on purple milkweed flowers

Dogbane family

Milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) – monarch, queen

Dogwood family

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) – American snoutbanded hairstreakspring azure.

Mustard family

Collards, kale, mustard (Brassica spp.) – whites
Please note that most of these garden plants are easy to grow and are suited for a wide range of butterfly species in North America. It is always best to grow native plants for the wide variety of pollinators they can attract. Butterflies love bright colors on the nectar plants.

Once you have these plants that attract butterflies in your garden you will be able to see the complete metamorphosis of the butterfly life stages. When the butterfly emerges it truly is remarkable!

How to Attract Butterflies

Butterfly eggs laid on a host plant eventually will turn into caterpillars. This is the start of the life cycle of the butterfly. To attract and keep butterflies, you need to supply the foods that they and their caterpillars eat. Many butterfly species get their nourishment from nectar that they sip from a variety of flowers. Butterfly caterpillars are more choosy, though. Most butterfly larvae are dependent on just one or a few kinds of green foliage for their sustenance. Female butterflies knows best, and she lays her eggs only on the kind of butterfly plant that her babies will eat. 

A successful butterfly garden needs to include flowers for the adult stage butterflies and foliage for the caterpillars. Pollinators love to have a place to hang in between hunting for food sources.

Not all butterflies sip nectar or pollen. Red-spotted purples, mourning cloaks, buckeyes, and malachites, are among those that feed on rotting fruits, tree sap, carrion, or even dung.

To attract the most butterflies to your pollinator garden, serve up a variety of flower colors, shapes, and sizes. Include morning and afternoon bloomers, flowers that open in different seasons (winter bloomers, we are looking at you!), USDA hardiness zone, and those that bloom in full sun areas as well as those that prefer partial shade nooks. You may also take into consideration the weather patterns in your area i.e. the amount of rainfall vs the drought tolerance of the plant. Diversity is the key to attracting the most butterflies to your garden. 

Of course, no matter what type of flowers you plant the pollinators will flock! These butterfly garden plants are for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, as well as other pollinators like wasps and other wildlife.

Some of the best nectar sources for attracting adult butterflies are in the aster, mint, and verbena families. They are long blooming flowers and you invite butterflies into your landscape in no time!
Monarch butterfly stages of development. Aren’t they beautiful?!
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