10 Plants to Give Butterflies a Boost
The secret to a successful butterfly garden is growing both nectar-rich flowers for feeding adult butterflies and plants that support the growth and development of caterpillars. Plants that support caterpillars are called host plants. While flowers attract butterflies to stop and feed in your garden, host plants invite them to make your garden their home. These 10 plants give butterflies a boost by providing for both adults and their offspring.
Annual and Perennial Plants for Butterflies
Flowering annuals and perennials are the foundation of a flourishing butterfly garden. Plant species that flower at different times throughout the season.
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
No butterfly garden list is complete without milkweed, so let’s start with this monarch magnet. There are many species available commercially and through local native plant organizations. Look for varieties native to your area. In addition to the beloved monarch, milkweeds also serve as host plant to the closely related queen butterfly. The nectar rich flowers are always swarming with winged beauties including both monarchs and queens, as well as a variety of swallowtails. Also watch for California hairstreak, great spangled fritillary, Baltimore checkerspot, Weidemeyer’s admiral, and ruddy daggerwings visiting the blooms.
Asters include several species in the genus Symphyotrichum, such as smooth blue aster, S. laevis, and New England aster, S. novae-angliae, all of which are excellent butterfly plants. The plants serve as host to developing pearly crescentspot caterpillars. Flowers provide a late-season food source for anise swallowtail, red admiral, painted lady, viceroy, and gulf fritillary butterflies, among many others.
Also called wild indigo or simply by its genus name, Baptisia, false indigo is an eastern native with several species and cultivars available commercially. Plants host the caterpillars of hoary edge, wild indigo duskywing, frosted elfin, clouded sulphur, eastern tailed-blue, and orange sulphur butterflies, as well as the genista broom moth. While many butterfly species feed on the nectar, the blooms are most significant as a food source to native bees.
Butterflies love sunflowers as much as gardeners do! The sunny blooms of Helianthus, the genus to which sunflowers belong, are visited by many different butterflies seeking out the abundant nectar in those large flower heads. Look for butterflies in the hairstreak group, including great purple, olive, California, and gray hairstreaks. Several caterpillars also utilize sunflowers as a food source, including gorgone checkerspot, bordered patch, and silvery checkerspot.
Ironweed, Vernonia species and cultivars, provides an excellent nectar source late in the growing season. The purple flowers bloom about the same time as goldenrod (another excellent nectar source) and attract a diversity of swallowtails and fritillaries, as well as cloudless giant sulphur, Diana, viceroy, and monarch butterflies, among other. Plants also serve as host to the developing caterpillars of beautiful American lady butterfly.
Woody Plants to Support Butterflies
Trees, shrubs, and vines are important components to the butterfly garden. Many serve as larval host plants. The dense branches also provide shelter and roosting sites. These are but a few woody plants to support butterflies.
This genus of native shrub includes both New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus, found in the eastern states, and several western species of Ceanothus, commonly referred to as California lilac. California lilac is host to brown elfin, California hairstreak, and spring azure butterflies. New Jersey tea also hosts spring azures as well as summer azure butterflies, which also frequent the flowers for nectar. Look for California hairstreak, red-banded hairstreak, and gray hairstreak nectaring on California lilac.
Native Cherries and Plums
Plants in the genus Prunus include large trees like black cherry, Prunus serotina, as well as shrub-sized species such as sand cherry, Prunus pumila. There is a Prunus species adapted to just about every habitat across the country, most of which are excellent hosts plants. Black cherry alone serves as a host plant to more than 450 species of butterfly and moth including eastern tiger swallowtail, viceroy, summer azure, cecropia moth, promethea moth, and red-spotted purple. Prunus species also offer an abundance of nectar to butterflies and other pollinators. As an added bonus, the small fruits are eaten by more than 40 different species of bird. Look for locally-adapted species for the greatest gardening success.
Several vines are celebrated host plants to developing caterpillars. The relationships between gulf fritillary and passion vine, and that of pipevine swallowtail with pipevine are both well know. Another beautiful native vine called coral honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens, is also a host plant. Look for the caterpillars of spring azure butterfly and snowberry clearwing moth on the twining stems. The gorgeous trumpet-shaped flowers attract hummingbirds as well as an abundance of swallowtail butterflies including pipevine, giant, and two-tailed tiger.
Grasses and “Weeds” Support Butterflies Too
We don’t often think of grasses or lawn weeds as host plants, but both turf grasses and ornamental grasses serve as host plants to a variety of caterpillars. And many of the so-called weeds growing in our lawns, including clovers, violets and even dandelions, provide nectar to foraging butterflies.
The towering blades of big bluestem, Andropogon gerardi, make quite an impression in the garden. This grass is native to much of North America and provides many ecological services. Arogos, Delaware, and dusted skippers, as well as common wood nymph butterflies use big bluestem as a host plant. This is the only plant on the list that is not also a source of nectar to adult butterflies, but the dense grass provides important shelter on wind-swept prairies. The seed heads are also a food source to numerous songbirds including sparrows, wrens, and meadowlarks.
Bee conservationists have long advocated for growing clover or Trifolium species in lawns. But bees are not the only insects to dine of the sweet nectar of clover blossoms. Numerous sulphur butterflies including the creamy marblewing, dogface, and orange sulphur are commonly found foraging on clover. Also look for marine blue, purplish copper, western pygmy blue, and common blue butterflies among the blooms. Clover also hosts the developing caterpillars of common sulphur, orange sulphur, dogface, and gray hairstreak butterflies. Those are a lot of benefits from one small “weed”!
To ensure an abundance of butterflies in the garden all year long, try planting a diversity of flowering perennials, trees, and shrubs that bloom at different time throughout the growing season. That way, there will be something in bloom from early spring to late fall. You’ll attract more butterflies than you thought possible.