Butterflies are drawn to colorful flowers that provide sweet energy-rich nectar. A well-planned butterfly garden includes adult nectar plants and larval host plants, creates shelter from wind and rain, and offers shady spots for resting and regulating body temperature.
Avoid harsh pesticides in the garden, as butterflies and their caterpillars are sensitive to chemicals. A pond or birdbath with a shallow mixture of sand and soil provides a place for butterflies to puddle, obtaining hydration and essential minerals.
Plant Nectar-Rich Plants
Butterflies are most attracted to flowers that offer the sweet liquids they crave. Choose from an assortment of wild and cultivated plants in a mix of colors, types of flowers, and bloom times that will provide nectar all growing season. Group flowers that have similar traits together to make it easier for butterflies to locate them.
Consider pairing taller perennials such as yarrow, purple coneflower, bee balm, or coreopsis with shorter annuals or perennials such as lilac, sage, dill, phlox, or common zinnia for a colorful and easy-to-care-for combination that will keep your garden blooming all summer. Or, try a big-flowered native such as Joe Pye weed or ‘Little Joe’ with low-growing phlox or perennial sedum for an elegant fall garden that supports migrating monarch butterflies.
Butterflies are also attracted to alternative food sources such as mushy fruits or overripe flowers, so include some of these in your butterfly garden. Place these near your feeders to attract more butterflies and help them avoid hungry predators like birds, wasps, and ants.
Plant Larval Host Plants
Many butterfly species seek specific host plants on which to lay their eggs. While a wide variety of wildflowers will attract adult butterflies, you can also increase the number that visit your garden by adding native or cultivated plants that serve as larval hosts, such as milkweed (Asclepias spp), parsley, dill and pipevine.
Once the eggs hatch, caterpillars devour the leaves of their host plant until they reach full size. Then they affix themselves to a branch or stem, where they spin a protective covering called a chrysalis. Within two weeks, they emerge as adults.
To encourage them to take a break, create an area for “puddling” in your garden. Butterflies use the sun to raise their body temperature and keep them active, so they tend to rest on flat stones or bare soil. You can even dig a shallow depression and fill it with damp sand, which butterflies gather in to soak up minerals.
As cold-blooded insects, butterflies must seek out warmth to warm their wings and bodies. To support these creatures, look for a sunny site where you can plant a broad-leafed shrub or woody perennial that offers shelter from wind and rain.
Consider using a variety of flowering plants that bloom over an extended period of time. This will provide a continuous supply of nectar for the butterflies throughout the growing season and allow them to gather sufficient energy for overwintering.
Provide supplemental feeding opportunities for butterflies by offering a sugar-water solution made with four parts water and one part sugar. Butterflies like this nourishing source of carbohydrates that they can easily digest. Also, create puddling stations to encourage butterflies to stay hydrated. To set up a puddling station, fill a shallow dish with sand and pebbles and add water to create a mud-like mixture. This will offer a quick energy boost and help butterflies obtain minerals that are important for their growth.
Butterflies are ectotherms, meaning that they lack the ability to regulate their internal body temperature. They rely on the sun to warm their bodies, so you should try to offer them a sunny spot in which to suntan and rest. Flat stones and bare soil are ideal locations for this purpose, as they allow butterflies to spread their wings to soak up the sun’s rays.
Some butterfly species require specific host plants on which to lay their eggs. The caterpillars of these species feed on the leaves of the host plant, after which they spin a protective cocoon and become adult butterflies.
When choosing plants for a butterfly garden, be sure to include both nectar-producing flowers and larval host plants. You should also aim to stagger the blooming times of your flowers so that something will always be in flower when butterflies are around. This will help to keep them coming back throughout the season.